Moore: How the Lakers and Bucks Maximize LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23), Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova (77).
- The Lakers and Bucks (24-4) are distancing themselves from the rest of the NBA in different ways.
- Matt Moore analyzes how both teams are built around their respective stars.
Stephen Curry is a very lucky man.
Not just for being an NBA superstar married to a celebrity chef with an adorable family making $40 million this season, who won three NBA titles and two league MVPs.
The rise of the Warriors as a franchise is most attributable to Curry. His shooting warped defenses, bent basketball to surreality, and provided the engine for the most powerful offense in NBA history.
However, all of this was also reflexive and synergistic, in that Curry was empowered and optimized by the circumstances the Warriors provided.
Before Steve Kerr arrived, Curry was a lightning bolt, to be sure, but one that only occasionally split the sky. After Kerr, he became a star not just in the NBA sense, but the astronomical, a constantly searing source of infinite light and heat in the heavens.
It was the impossibility of teams to effectively double him without surrendering 4-on-3’s to Draymond Green who will likely be overlooked for his passing contributions in punishing teams by driving, lobbing to centers or passing to the corner.
It was the seeming hopelessness of managing to contain Curry, limit Green, and then be buried by Klay Thompson’s endless rain of 3-pointers driving teams further into inescapable deficits. And it was the defense at the core of it, just ask the Warriors. They were the first team in NBA history to lead the league in pace and defensive rating in 2015. Their phalanx of long, quick, switchable defenders stymied teams constantly, creating havoc for Curry to thrive.
Curry’s threes caused panic, which opened things for those other players, and the scoring meant they were always back defensively with a head start while the opponent took the ball out.
One unstoppable force creating a pendulum in one direction driven the other way by another.
All great players will have teammates to credit, but maybe no star player has ever had a team so perfectly built around him with so few discernible weaknesses.
Certainly, LeBron James hasn’t.
I’ve often wondered why it seems LeBron has been on so few truly great teams. The 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat teams were great. I don’t fully agree but can understand an argument for the 2016 team that won the title (though their comeback was made all the more remarkable by the gap that existed between Golden State and that Cavs team).
The 2017 team is often cited, but I cannot stress this enough, their defense was trash. It’s certainly true that no one was going to beat the Warriors that year who finished 16-1 in the playoffs, but it certainly wasn’t going to be a team who, forgive me as I giggle, tried to outscore the Warriors.
LeBron in Miami was difficult to optimize. Chris Bosh was a pick-and-pop threat, a pass that even now James doesn’t use consistently. (Anthony Davis has 42 pick-and-pops this season via Synergy, seventh-most in the league, but over half of those have come from non-LeBron passers and that’s a tiny sliver compared to the league-high amount of assists LeBron provides Davis.)
Dwyane Wade was a slasher and shot-creator who learned to thrive with James in transition, but their halfcourt fit was always awkward. The Heat eventually put shooters who could defend like Shane Battier and Ray Allen around him, but they were well past their primes and the Heat’s bigs were plodding (which helped give way to the small ball Heat that beat the Spurs in 2013).
The Cavs team was even less optimized, despite trying to be more so. The idea was to surround LeBron with four shooters and roast everyone, but those shooters could never defend. Kyrie Irving wanted more control of the ball and often chose to create his own offense than move it.
Kevin Love was another pick-and-pop weapon. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith fit well with James, but neither were elite at what they did (though in 2016 they were pretty close).
Which brings us to this season.
This may be the most optimized we’ve ever seen LeBron. The Lakers rank 25th in 3-point rate and 16th in 3-point percentage. But their shooters are reliable with Danny Green (37%) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (38%) manning the wing. If you overcommit to James and Davis, they’ll make you pay. (Rondo is also shooting 44% from three, but I don’t want to stir that hornets’ nest.)
If not, you have Davis and LeBron. As I mentioned above, LeBron-to-Davis leads the league in assist combos, with 86 times the two have connected. That’s 23 more than the second-most frequent combo (Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris).
One of the ugly truths about this Lakers season? Davis isn’t really killing teams on his own.
He’s 28th percentile on jumpshots, shooting 33.7%. He’s 71st percentile scoring in the post, but shooting just 48%. Most of his efficiency there comes from drawing fouls (16.8% free throw rate, seventh-most among players with 100 post-ups). He has 110 points scored in the post on field goals, with a huge chunk of that coming in one burst vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves in his 52-point game.
But Davis is destroying teams as the tip of the spear in team actions. He has the sixth-most points league-wide as the roll man in pick-and-roll. He’s created the eighth-most points off cuts.
When the Mavericks try and switch, Delon Wright knows he needs to be ready to help Powell vs. James. So you now have a distracted guard against a cutting 7-foot pterodactyl in Davis:
Same thing with pick and roll. So much concern for LeBron, Davis can just jump and finish:
In isolation? He’s shooting 36% and is just 37th percentile league-wide.
LeBron to Davis has been unstoppable because of their combination of size and athleticism. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s an awesome thing: the Lakers have not tried to overcomplicate things. They are using their giant hammer over and over again.
In an era so committed to small ball, the Lakers having Davis and JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor at all times should be this huge limitation. But instead, the Lakers are just constantly throwing alley-oops over these smaller lineups.
James is playing so well this year that he’s just blowing past perimeter containment and when they send multiple help defenders, he can just slip the ball to one of the bigs.
The Lakers have the third-best bench net rating in the league, in part thanks to the fact that they only spend five minutes per game without Davis or LeBron on-court. (We’re going to ignore that the Lakers have actually been outscored with Davis on and LeBron off so far this season, just for the moment.)
The Lakers are a great offensive team, if not a super-dynamic one. They can be beaten by playing to the 3-point line and challenging Davis in the post. But they’re still a monster for most teams to deal with.
Meanwhile, this is the best defensive team LeBron has been on since 2013. He’s not giving up anything when he has offense on the floor. What a concept. Shooters … who can defend? Amazing!
Defensively, they’re exceptional. They are long, athletic, skilled, tenacious, and physical, but also most importantly compared to last season’s team, they are made of veterans who know what the hell they’re doing.
Against small teams they just absolutely envelop attempts to rotate the ball:
James’ trust in his teammates has made a world of difference in keeping him more attached to his assignment rather than freelancing and giving up buckets — a huge problem in Cleveland. He’s locked in and they’re locked in, and that’s how the defense should work.
The perimeter defenders funnel the drives to the shot blockers, and extra rotations are in place.
James has the ability to run pick-and-roll, constantly, or ISO, or post, and when he does, he can punish teams for that help. He has rebounders, shot contesters, transition weapons and shooters ready to launch when they catch.
This team isn’t the mold we’ve thought of for how to build a LeBron team. But it does augment his abilities to make a better version for the collective, instead of just one to make James look good.
Related: he still looks good.
Now, what about Giannis?
The Bucks have been dominant the past two seasons, there’s no question about that. They built their team on a similar model: great shooters who are exceptionally long and athletic. Their defensive model contains the paint at all costs, with Brook Lopez being a stone guardian down low.
On offense, they invert matters. With Giannis being the most dominant two-point scorer of the decade, literally setting records, they’ve geared their team to be five-out, shooters everywhere. Milwaukee has five players averaging double-digit minutes and shooting better than 38% from 3-point range.
Help down on Giannis, and the Bucks’ shooters rip you apart. Stay home on the shooters, and Giannis dunks on your head.
In many ways, Giannis is the middle-point between LeBron and AD. Impossibly tall, able to use his length to simply dominate at the rim, but also a gifted passer and versatile wing defender. The issue is that Giannis simultaneously needs the ball in his hands at all times and needs a playmaker to create when the defense gears against him the way the Raptors did.
The Bucks are reliant on 3-point shots to fall. Any cold streaks at all and the whole team falls apart. The Lakers can tough out a win with defense and posting up Davis or getting to the line.
This is where the absence of Malcolm Brogdon stands out. Brogdon averaged 3.4 assists per game in the playoffs and was able to create out of the pick-and-roll.
Eric Bledsoe fills a lot of this role, but his limitations in the playoffs always seem pronounced. Meanwhile, under the radar, Brook Lopez is shooting 29% from 3. The Bucks, with the No. 2 offense, could be better.
As they stand, the Bucks are optimized in the old way LeBron was, with shooters. Their defenders are better, but it’s still mostly four dudes waiting for the omega-forward to obliterate his defender, then catching and shooting.
Milwaukee is also reliant on transition play. They lead the league in percentage of time in transition and are second in fastbreak points per 100 possessions. All of this explains the trouble they had in the Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the Raptors. They don’t have a secondary scoring mechanism away from Giannis, and they need to push in transition.
None of this disqualifies them from title contention; they lead the league in net rating, rank second in offensive rating and first in defense; they’re a regular-season juggernaut.
But heading into Thursday night’s showdown, we’re seeing the Lakers who have made the most of LeBron maybe more than any team in his career, and the Bucks who are trying to do the same with Giannis.
Part of this comes from how Giannis is still improving on the weaknesses he started his career with, as opposed to LeBron who isn’t physically what he was six years ago but is more skilled than ever in controlling the game.
The Lakers may get LeBron a ring by building a team custom made to his talents on both sides of the ball. The Bucks are trying to do the same and the proof is still to be determined.
The Bucks can raise their collective selves to make the most of the player Giannis is now. If they don’t, it will only raise more questions about his future in Milwaukee, as unfair as that is given the awesome team they’ve built around him.