Lakers Film Breakdown: Making Case For LeBron James To Play Off Ball More This Season
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more exciting things to watch unfold throughout the 2023 NBA Playoffs was how we may have gotten a peak into how the Los Angeles Lakers will utilize LeBron James offensively in the future.

One of the things that we discussed when scouting for the Memphis Grizzlies’ first-round matchup was how aggressively they would help off the ball, particularly from the “Nail.” The Lakers did an excellent job noticing this as well and picked the Grizzlies apart in this department, and it’s one of the big reasons why L.A. won that series.

This double-drag ball-screen set starts with Dennis Schroder setting the initial ball screen, followed by an Anthony Davis screen. Just look at the positioning of Dillon Brooks, who is guarding James off the ball. As Reaves starts to come off the Davis screen, LeBron does a stampede cut into the lane as Austin Reaves throws a great pass leading to the easy James layup. A “Stampede Cut” is very similar to the “45 Cut” because of how the cut starts on the wing and is typically at a 45-degree angle from the wing and the rim. The significant distinction between the two is where you receive a potential pass-off said cut. In a typical 45/Burn Cut, you will receive the pass much closer to the rim.

A stampede cut will have the receiver catching the pass while still moving. This is particularly lethal when you have LeBron James on your team, who’s still one of the game’s best finishers and best playmakers while being one of the five best off-ball players on the planet despite what the narrative surrounding LeBron is. James’ timing and IQ off-ball is simply impeccable. You combine all these elements, and you have created great offense.

In the same series, we see an example of the Stampede cut setting up LeBron’s (still) elite playmaking ability. A scramble drill off an offensive rebound leads to some favorable matchups for the Lakers. The biggest one was Ja Morant matched up with James. So when LeBron stampede cuts into the lane, Jaren Jackson Jr. has to “tag” on the cut to prevent the wide-open dunk from James. LeBron does a great job of having split-second decision-making to hit Jarred Vanderbilt for the corner three quickly.

Not only does the film back up my thoughts that James is an elite and honestly underrated off-ball player, but the advanced analytics also back that up. When you look at the players with the highest impact when they are off the ball moving (off-ball screens and cutting), James is near the top of the league. He doesn’t have the volume that guys such as Aaron Gordon, Bojan Bogdanovic or Klay Thompson have, however, I’m confident we’ll see more LeBron off-ball reps next season, and the coaching staff has good reason to do so.

If you lose sight of James off the ball, he’s so lethal at finding the open spots to cut, and more times than not, will either create a high-quality shot for himself or a teammate. This possession was nearly perfect for the Golden State Warriors until Andrew Wiggins started ball-watching and James made an excellent baseline cut where Reaves found him for the easy lob.

A similar result here during the regular season against the Warriors, where the Lakers run a “Knicks” Set. Knicks’ action features a dribble handoff towards the corner followed by a ball reversal back to the opposite wing ending with a sprinting step-up screen from the big. Hard to really tell if this is the play design or LeBron being a genius but with James’ defender starting to cheat into the lane again, he makes an excellent baseline cut for another lob.

You combine LeBron’s still great athleticism with elite timing and elite basketball IQ, and it’s no surprise why James is easily one of the best cutters and best off-ball players in the NBA in general. LeBron ranked in the 97th percentile in terms of Points Per Possession on off-ball cuts per Synergy last season with a ridiculous 1.684 PPP! The Lakers have to find a way to tap into this more next season, as LeBron only had 95 scoring possessions (Shot Attempt, Turnover, Foul) on cuts last season.

Another reason why I am so confident that shifting LeBron off the ball could lead to even more success is because the Lakers have such great complementary pieces around him. The Lakers have invested heavily in the guard room in recent years. After trading for D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline last season, they extended Austin Reaves for the next four seasons, signed Gabe Vincent to a three-year deal, and spent a top-20 pick on Indiana guard Jalen Hood-Schifino.

Reports have already surfaced that the Lakers want to give Reaves more on-ball responsibilities next season, and with good reason. We should also expect an increased offensive role for Davis as well.

By doing this, the Lakers can accomplish three things. First, they get to unlock one of the best offensive engines in the entire NBA even further. Second, they build more trust and confidence in their other vital stars and role players such as Davis, Reaves, Russell, Rui Hachimura, Vincent, etc.

And finally, they get to try to keep LeBron James as rested and healthy as possible for the playoffs, where the Lakers are hopeful to begin their quest for banner No. 18. I truthfully believe that giving LeBron a more advanced off-ball role will give the Lakers their best shot at doing just that.

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