Just about every NBA team has its signature play, the clip that flashes into your head when you think about how they do what they do. It’s Steph Curry pulling up for a transition three, or Chris Paul tossing a lob off of the high pick, or Russell Westbrook catching a whisper of daylight, changing speeds and dunking the seams off the ball.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, the signature play is also the foundational one: LeBron James driving to the hole. Steph pulling up for that 30-footer on the run is the shiniest piece of the Warriors system, but there’s a whole team of clicking, whirring parts underneath that make it work. LeBron attacking the rim is different. It might seem like mere brute force, reinforcing the image of the Cavs playing un-Warriors-like Riley-ball, but it’s the linchpin, the whole system tied up in one player’s ability to do everything at once while doing the one thing he does better than anyone else.
It starts with the shooters
LeBron is the engine that powers everything, but the rest of the Cavs’ offense is built around 3-point shooters. Going back to the days when James lobbied the team to sign Donyell Marshall or made his playoff runs flanked by Boobie Gibson and Wally Szczerbiak, he has always been surrounded by as much shooting as possible.
This season’s Cavs might be James’s most talented shooting team yet, with premium sidekicks such as Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Korver, as well as a handful of castoff shooters such as Derrick Williams and James Jones. During the regular season, 13 Cavaliers played in at least 20 games and shot at least 35 percent (the NBA average) from three. That’s an uncommon amount of firepower, even among contenders: The Warriors had only six such players; the Spurs had nine; the Rockets five.1
Shooting and driving have a symbiotic relationship, and their effect on the game is obvious: Good outside shooting spaces the floor for drives; better drives cause the defense to collapse, creating more open 3-pointers. But the effect for the Cavs is even greater than normal, because LeBron James going to the rim is still the most dangerous play in basketball.
In the four seasons the NBA has collected player-tracking data, LeBron has been driving far ahead of the pack. He has led the league in field-goal percentage on drives2 twice, and even that doesn’t quite convey how far removed he really is from most of his peers. Year in and year out, James shoots about 5 to 10 percentage points better on his drives than the players who drive most frequently.3
|FIELD GOALS ON DRIVES||TRUE SHOOTING ON DRIVES|
|SEASON||DRIVES PER GAME||PERCENTAGE||LEAGUE RANK||PERCENTAGE||LEAGUE RANK|
James scores 135.2 points per 100 plays when he drives to the basket off of pick-and-rolls, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. That number barely budges when he drives off of isolations — typically regarded as a low-efficiency play, the domain of hero-ball icons like Carmelo Anthony and DeMar Derozan — where he gets 128.1 points per 100. Now compare those numbers to the efficiency of a Stephen Curry spot-up jumper, which is just about the most feared play in the game today: Curry scored 132.5 points per 100 on spot-ups this season, right around the midpoint between a LeBron drive off the pick-and-roll and the “inefficient ones” off isolation.
Of course, LeBron doesn’t drive just to score: There’s also the matter of finding all those open shooters. When James passes to spot-up shooters out of the pick-and-roll, his team scores 120.3 points per 100 plays — best in the NBA among players who made at least three pick-and-roll passes per game. That’s due in part to the Cavs simply having better shooters than other teams, but it’s LeBron’s vision and ability to hit teammates from anywhere on the floor that makes the whole thing hum. Kyrie Irving is a very good point guard, but in comparison with LeBron, the offense scores 7 fewer points per 100 plays when Irving passes to spot-up shooters on those drives; Irving also shot 11 percentage points worse on drives this season than James did, 51.4 to 62.4. And so the difference between James barreling into the lane and Irving doing so is not only the daylight between those two sets of numbers, but also the shift in the split-second calculations that opposing defenders must make.
Splitting the pick-and-roll
Even when opponents know what’s coming — that James is going to get a high screen and be asked to navigate the defense from there — the 32-year-old still manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat from time to time, befuddling defenders who’ve technically done everything by the book. Perhaps no play exemplifies this better than when James splits a pick-and-roll.
When Cleveland sets up a high pick-and-roll for James, two defenders align themselves in a way that — they hope — keeps him from going to the basket with the ball. But James is often able to spot the slightest bit of daylight, ducking between the two defenders and beginning an unstoppable, downhill sprint toward the rim anyway.
The play — which generally involves James crossing the ball over from his right hand to his left — has ended in a dunk a third of the time this season. While he only pulls this particular rabbit out of his hat occasionally — it only happened 15 times during the regular season — James averaged 1.87 points per play and scored on a blistering 87 percent of his possessions when he split the pick and roll, both rates that easily ranked as the highest in the NBA among players with at least 10 plays, according to Synergy Sports. (Interestingly, Irving had the league’s second-best rate in each category.)
In those plays (a number of which came against Golden State and the Eastern Conference finalist Boston Celtics), James capitalizes on defenders not “closing the chain” to stop him from weaving between them with a dribble. Trying to prepare for James’s violent drive to the basket, the second defender generally comes out too wide, allowing James to take the inside track toward the paint, where few players want any part of being in his way.
The impact of the big man — without the big man
The thing to note through all of this is that James isn’t simply a brawnier version of other drive-and-kick maestros like Westbrook or James Harden. A critical difference is that James provides not only efficient offense, but also the collateral benefits typically associated with a star big man — only without the limitations.
Here’s a list of players who shot 70 percent or better from inside of 3 feet this season,4 ranked by the percentage of their close-range baskets that stemmed from an assist:
|FIELD GOALS WITHIN 3 FEET|
There are players in this group who shoot about as well down low as LeBron does, but generally, the most successful shooters within 3 feet are traditional bigs who need to be fed the ball in advantageous spots to get those looks. Most on this list were assisted anywhere between 60 percent and 80 percent of the time on such shots. That’s the tradeoff that the league has long made with its star big men — they provide efficient scoring and floor-spacing from the post but are reliant on other players to get them the ball. Not so for LeBron.
James combines competent play out of post-ups with his utter dominance driving to the hole to provide the same impact on a game that once came from star centers. It isn’t just the scoring consistency and spacing, either: LeBron also piled up more and-one opportunities than anyone in the league this season. Some of the value of those and-ones is already captured in James’s impressive true shooting percentage. But the ability to keep pressure on a defense, inch it closer to the penalty and generate extra opportunities for 3-pointer shooters, all at the same time, is something no other player in the league has.