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LeBron And AD Aren’t Just Good Together. They’re Historically Great.

With the top record in the Western Conference — a blistering 24-3 mark — the Los Angeles Lakers have been one of the NBA’s early season success stories. Last year, L.A. finished out of the playoffs after LeBron James was limited to a career-low 55 games and his teammates mostly failed to pick up the slack. But this season’s squad has dominated, going an average of nearly three weeks between losses thus far. It’s amazing what adding a future Hall of Famer in his prime can do for a team’s fortunes!

Unsurprisingly, the LeBron/Anthony Davis pairing has turned out to be extremely fruitful for Los Angeles. James has already connected for 86 assists to Davis this season — the most by any player to a teammate in the NBA so far, according to data from Second Spectrum.

The NBA’s most prolific passing pairs

Most assists from one passer to one scorer in the 2019-20 NBA season, through Dec. 15, 2019

rank Passer Scorer Team Assists
1 LeBron James Anthony Davis Lakers 86
2 Ben Simmons Tobias Harris 76ers 63
3 Lou Williams Montrezl Harrell Clippers 57
3 Damian Lillard Hassan Whiteside Blazers 57
5 Malcolm Brogdon T.J. Warren Pacers 56
6 Jrue Holiday J.J. Redick Pelicans 52
7 James Harden Clint Capela Rockets 50
8 Bradley Beal Thomas Bryant Wizards 49
8 Tomáš Satoranský Zach LaVine Bulls 49
10 Jamal Murray Nikola Jokić Nuggets 47

Source: Second Spectrum

In terms of our RAPTOR player ratings, James has been the second-best player in the league with 5.6 wins above replacement — trailing only Houston’s James Harden — while Davis is tied for ninth with 3.9 WAR. (The Lakers are the only team this season with two players ranked among the top 10 in WAR.) L.A. is also on track to be only the 15th team since the ABA-NBA merger with two players who played at least two-thirds of available team minutes while posting a per-possession RAPTOR rating of +5.5 or better:1

RAPTOR’s most dynamic (post-merger) NBA duos

NBA teams with multiple players who played at least two-thirds of available minutes with a RAPTOR rating of +5.5 or better, 1976-2020

No. 1 Player No. 2 Player
Season Team Name RAPTOR Name RAPTOR
1979-80 Lakers Magic Johnson +6.2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar +5.6
1989-90 Blazers Clyde Drexler +6.6 Terry Porter +6.0
1990-91 Bulls Michael Jordan +12.3 Scottie Pippen +6.8
1990-91 Blazers Terry Porter +7.7 Clyde Drexler +7.1
1991-92 Bulls* Michael Jordan +9.6 Scottie Pippen +7.0
1995-96 Bulls Michael Jordan +10.3 Scottie Pippen +7.8
1995-96 Jazz John Stockton +7.5 Karl Malone +6.2
1996-97 Bulls Michael Jordan +8.6 Scottie Pippen +7.0
1996-97 Jazz John Stockton +8.0 Karl Malone +6.2
2000-01 Lakers Kobe Bryant +6.4 Shaquille O’Neal +6.2
2006-07 Suns Steve Nash +6.3 Shawn Marion +6.2
2010-11 Heat LeBron James +7.6 Dwyane Wade +6.8
2012-13 Thunder Kevin Durant +7.5 Russell Westbrook +6.2
2015-16 Warriors Stephen Curry +12.5 Draymond Green +9.4
2019-20 Lakers LeBron James +9.0 Anthony Davis +5.6

*The 1992 Bulls had a third player with a RAPTOR over +5.5: Horace Grant (+6.1).

The 2019-20 Lakers’ statistics are through Dec. 15, 2019.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Beyond their individual statistics, James and Davis have also been the sixth-best duo in the league in on-court net rating, as the Lakers have outscored opponents by a whopping 12.2 points per 100 possessions with both stars on the floor together.

The two work so well in tandem because their skills mesh almost perfectly: James ranks 24th among 256 qualified players in direct picks received per 100 possessions while Davis ranks 52nd in picks set per 100, according to Second Spectrum. James ranks 27th in drives per 100; Davis is one of the league’s top scorers off of cuts, where a driving LeBron often finds him for a quick dunk, layup or lob. The threat posed by James’s own shooting — and, more importantly, his ability to find even better outside shooters such as Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — opens up space inside for Davis, one of the best interior scorers in the league. Laker opponents are frequently forced to pick their poison because it’s so difficult to stop both James and Davis on any given possession.

One interesting note on the AD-LeBron dynamic, however, is the split between L.A.’s performance with one but not the other. Sure, the pairing stays on the court for about 25 minutes per game on average, and outscores opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when together. And L.A. also plays about three minutes per game without either James or Davis. But what happens in those 20 or so minutes where the Lakers stagger their Big Two?

How do the Lakers fare when their Big Two splits up?

Points scored and allowed per 100 possessions for the 2019-20 Lakers, depending on whether LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis is on court

Points per 100 poss.
Split Type Minutes/Gm Offense Defense Net Rating
James + Davis 24.7 112.9 100.7 +12.2
James, no Davis 10.9 114.8 100.3 +14.5
Davis, no James 10.0 101.7 106.4 -4.7

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

As dominant as the Lakers have been with both James and Davis in the game, they’ve somehow been even better without Davis — as long as James is playing. In roughly 11 minutes per game with LeBron only, L.A. is beating opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions, with James taking on a much larger usage rate but also improving his scoring efficiency, lowering his turnovers and rebounding more as well. The team hasn’t fared anywhere near as well with Davis but not James, as L.A. gets outscored by 4.7 points per 100 over that split, even as Davis’s already amazing individual numbers improve without needing to share touches with James.

What does it mean? Mainly, it seems to be an artifact of what we wrote about earlier in the season when discussing LeBron’s stellar performance at the point. The Lakers haven’t had many other primary ballhandlers, aside from James, who can effectively orchestrate their offense — even though their offense currently ranks fifth-best in the league. Other than James, only four qualifying players on the entire team have an assist rate in the double-digits, and one of them is Davis. (The others are Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo and Quinn Cook.) And of those, only Rondo — who has played well in the 15 games he’s logged this season since returning from injury in mid-November — is associated with a significant positive net effect on L.A.’s offense when in the game. LeBron fulfills so many roles that are essential to the Lakers that he is more irreplaceable than even Davis, who might be the best big man in the league.

But despite the early-season split statistics, there’s no question that the Lakers are better — nearly unstoppable, even — with LeBron and AD playing together. Any questions about how well the pair would work together have been eradicated; all that’s left is to wonder how far they can take Los Angeles once the playoffs begin.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The crosstown rival Clippers’ pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would also qualify … except neither has even played 50 percent of available minutes. The price of load management!

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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