LeBron James has spent his career burdened by comparison. He is the poster athlete of the Age of Scrutiny: applauded at 17 for maintaining Magic Johnson’s collaborative basketball legacy, denigrated at 34 for lacking Michael Jordan’s last-second cold-bloodedness, measured annually against contemporaries from Carmelo Anthony to Giannis Antetokounmpo. In just the past few seasons, he has surrendered and regained his reputation as the game’s best player too many times to count. It is fitting, then, that the latter stages of his career have found James in Los Angeles, where he contends with two challenges. The first is to win a championship with the Lakers. The second is to do so in a manner in keeping with the demands of a famously provincial fan base — to win it, in other words, like Kobe Bryant.
The arrival of Anthony Davis in James’s second L.A. season has made a title more likely; after a Game 1 loss to the red-hot Trail Blazers, the Lakers have settled in to take a 2-1 series lead. Davis’s presence, though, has also made the comparisons all the more unavoidable. In the broadest sense, the two superstars fit the mold of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal; one is a generational wing creator, the other a league-pacing big man. But what makes them powerhouses in the modern game — their versatility and awareness, a shared habit for forgoing the egoistic play in favor of the right one — also earns them a dose of local suspicion. Kobe and Shaq butted heads, did their own things, got buckets and won three rings. There is a strain of Lakers fan (summed up best by this guy) who sees the current squad’s deep catalog of pick-and-roll variations as unnecessary to the task at hand.
The hoops intelligentsia has, for the most part, weighed the case for hero ball and ruled against it. But behind the nostalgia of the Kobe-Shaq partisans may be a point. A lot has changed in the past two decades of the NBA, but the ability to clear out and go to work remains a useful postseason tool. And if the new Lakers are going to match their predecessors, they might need to fall back on some of their old go-it-alone tendencies.
By today’s scoreboard-spinning standards, the offensive ratings put up by the early-2000s Lakers (107.3 points per 100 possessions in 1999-2000, 108.4 in 2000-01, 109.4 in 2001-02) don’t amount to much; 19 teams bettered those marks this year. But in the slowed-down aftermath of the Jordan era, those marks stood near the top of the league. L.A. seemed at the time to embody the sport’s full-spectrum future, marrying the midrange stylings made iconic by MJ (the fadeaway that Kobe inherited) with the post-centric approach that had come before (Shaq’s drop step, pressure-tested by everyone from Hakeem Olajuwon to David Robinson). Opposing teams had a hard enough time dealing with either O’Neal on the block or Bryant at the elbow, let alone wrangling both.
It was brutalist basketball, concerned less with maximizing efficiency — the word then brought to mind economy of motion, not shot charts — than with deploying advantage as straightforwardly as possible. Over their championship seasons, Bryant and O’Neal used 29.8 and 31.5 percent of the Lakers’ possessions, respectively, and to devastating effect. Bryant averaged 25.4 points and 5.1 assists on a .547 true shooting percentage; if he was disinclined to hunt the most analytically sound shots, he made the less-recommended ones with remarkable facility. O’Neal put up 28.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, leading the league in Box Plus/Minus in all three seasons. “We’re … the most dominant one-two punch, little-big, ever created in the game,” O’Neal said.
Much of their effectiveness came, counterintuitively, from how little they needed one another. (Some of the friction between them likely came from the same source.) To be sure, they benefited from each other’s presence — Bryant, stationed on the wing, dissuaded teams from hurling double-teams at O’Neal; O’Neal kept help defenders from lining up in Bryant’s path — but they were, at heart, self-sufficient scorers. Synergy’s system of tracking iso plays and post-ups doesn’t extend back to the “Roundball Rock” days, but the two held so fast to archetypes that the numbers would be almost redundant. Pull up any film from their three-peat run and it will show more or less the same things: Shaq in the post pivoting into uncontestable jump hooks and mashing his way to massive slams, Kobe working his jab-steps and crossovers into 18-foot pullups or attacks on the rim.
The modern NBA features challenges and expectations those Lakers never dealt with, of course: strong-side overloads, expanded skill sets, the prioritization of space and tempo. Where Kobe and Shaq dealt in addition, LeBron and AD deal in multiplication. This season’s usage rates for James and Davis (31.5 and 29.3 percent, respectively) are similar to those of peak Bryant and O’Neal, but the two play more in tandem. The plays James has spent a career refining — the defense-collapsing drives and precognitive passes — find natural outlets in Davis’s catch-and-shoot acumen and gummy-armed lob finishes. Per PBP Stats, no assist combination has been more fruitful this season than James to Davis, both in sum totals and baskets at the rim. (In 2001-02, Bryant-to-Shaq ranked 38th in the league in total assists; Rick Fox tallied more assists to O’Neal.) “He does everything,” James said last week of his All-Star teammate. “He handles the ball for us, he posts up, he’s on the perimeter, he’s the Defensive Player of the Year.”
The formula has worked well enough; even after a drowsy run in the bubble seeding games, the Lakers retained the West’s best regular-season record, at 52-19. In a statement-making win over the East-leading Bucks in March — a narrative-laden potential Finals preview — James and Davis combined for 67 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists (those all James’s). Ahead by 6 with just under three minutes left and looking to ice the game, the Lakers turned to their preferred play: the James-Davis ball screen, which they ran nearly 600 times over the course of the regular season, per Second Spectrum. One trip yielded a James layup that missed but drew help defense; Davis cleaned it up with a tip-in. The next coaxed a double-team of James, and Davis popped free for a wide-open elbow jumper. The sequence summed up the bind the two put defenses in: Both players provoke overreaction, so one gets loose.
But gaudy stats and the overall record have masked the kind of minor deficiencies that can become major in the deep rounds of the playoffs. The synchronicity of James and Davis has come at the cost, for now, of some measure of individual excellence. James averaged 0.90 points per possession on 300 isolation plays this year, down from 0.97 last season and his lowest mark since 2015-16. Davis averaged 0.90 points per possession on 321 post-up plays, which represented a similar dip from last year and was his lowest average since 2016-17.1
To judge James and Davis solely by their one-on-one acumen is reductive in the extreme. Still, recent history has borne out the idea that, at certain postseason junctures, squaring off and going to work is the best option. The Raptors won last year’s title due in no small part to Kawhi Leonard’s increasingly accurate Jordan impression; the last four Finals MVPs have scored at least 0.94 points per possession in iso situations in the playoffs. The numbers echo a prominent line of thought concerning postseason basketball: that seven-game series tend to break the sport down to its simplest variables — namely, who can score on whom.
Exceptions spring to mind. The 2013-14 Spurs beat LeBron’s Miami Heat via a kind of basketball hivemind, and the pre-Durant Warriors played similarly, just 10 extra feet from the basket. But the present Lakers, like their forebears, lack the roster depth to do that. In each of the Lakers’ championship seasons from 2000 to 2002, only one player not named Bryant or O’Neal averaged more than 10 points; twice it was Derek Fisher, at just over 11 points per game. This year’s Lakers likewise have only one consistent double-figure threat outside of James and Davis — Kyle Kuzma.2 If defenses face the option of either guarding the James-Davis pick-and-roll straight up or collapsing on it and allowing 3-pointers from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso, the decision is easy.
The good news for Lakers fans is that James has plenty of practice in taking the needed solo turn. His 45-point elimination-avoiding outburst against the Boston Celtics in 2012 found him squarely in the Kobe-Jordan tradition, canning turnaround fadeaways and blowing past one-on-one defenders. More recently, during the 2018 postseason, his last in Cleveland, James shouldered more than his preferred share of the playmaking burden, and his 9.7 iso possessions per game in the playoffs was second only to James Harden’s 12.9. James’s effectiveness in these situations, in which he scored 0.99 points per possession, helped drag one of the least-qualified rosters in recent memory to the Finals. And though Davis posted a negative plus/minus without James on the court during the regular season, a 31-and-11 outing as James struggled with his shooting in the Lakers’ Game 2 victory over the Blazers on Thursday offered hope that Davis might shoulder a bigger postseason load and rely less on James. On Saturday, the pair became the first Lakers duo since Bryant and O’Neal in 2002 to log 25 points and 10 rebounds apiece in a playoff game.
On the whole, of course, Lakers fans will be delighted if they have the luxury of debating the merits of various championship methodologies in a couple of months. But the most stubborn among them may also feel a sort of vindication. If James is to win his fourth championship this season and is to win Davis his first, they just might have to do it the old-school way.
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