This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Anthony Davis is one of the best pick-and-roll bigs of this generation. He's now paired with perhaps the greatest passer of all-time in LeBron James, a special athlete with an insane command of any defense he's facing.
The duo is as vaunted in one action as any in recent memory.
But something is also strange about their pairing in its current manifestation: Davis, for all his unworldly athleticism and natural skill, prefers not to be the only post player on the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers. Such a choice has altered the team's attack on both ends, pairing Davis and LeBron with another big.
In theory, this relieves Davis from the bruising nature of physical post play, allows him to rove more on defense and gives him a distinct size advantage in his individual matchup. In practice, the lineups morph the spacing around Davis during ball screens.
The Lakers work in contrast with the league's current space-and-pace nature. When Davis is out or is at the 5—which happens 35 percent of the time, according to Cleaning the Glass—that spread ball screen becomes the focal point of their attack. After all, it helped carry LeBron to four-straight NBA Finals appearances with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The offense changes the other 65 percent of the time when Davis shares the floor with another big. The Lakers then can still run spread pick-and-roll and place AD on the perimeter in a spot-up situation. The offense is simple, effective and reminiscent of what brought LeBron to the peak of his powers:
But doing so takes the magic out of a Davis-James tandem in ball screens. That's what head coach Frank Vogel knows he must get to with two transcendent talents. Instead of surrounding his two All-Stars with three shooters that stand and wait for a kick out, Vogel uses false movement, cutting on the weak side and appropriately accounting for the Lakers' other big when summoning the LeBron-Brow ball screen combination.
Basically, everything is predicated around the positioning of that other big.
Spacing Principle: The Dunk Box
Spacing is offense and offense is spacing.
NBA players make high-level, high-IQ decisions at such a quick speed that many of them aren't even noticed. If pro basketball often looks structureless at times, it's due to the wisdom of each player and their understanding of where to go, when to go there and how to determine if they need to move.
One such principle is seen with big men, many of whom are trained to stand in the "dunk box", an area just outside the paint along the baseline. Bigs can get from their spot in the dunk box to the rim in just one step, so it's an area where they absolutely cannot be unguarded.
By standing outside the lane, the bigs can avoid a three-seconds call while staying out of the way of any middle penetration. They can also read their defender: If they see the back of his head when their man goes to help uphill, they relocate along the baseline and become open for a dunk or layup.
Vogel places the other big (usually JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard) within this dunk box whenever a pick-and-roll between LeBron James and Anthony Davis occurs. The big is to stay on the opposite side of the floor of the rolling Davis to provide floor spacing. Less than a play call and more of a principle, bigs in the dunk box are able to read what Davis and LeBron do within the ball screen, then relocate to the proper side of the floor:
If McGee were to stay on the same side of the floor that Davis rolls to, LeBron wouldn't be able to lob anything to the diving Davis. By staying opposite the roller, the pocket pass from LeBron is now open as an avenue worth exploring.
Most of the time, the Lakers will run these pick-and-rolls with an empty corner on the strong-side. That gives Davis a ton of room to roam as the roller and is designed to get him open more frequently.
If there's another offensive player in that corner, there's also a defender, and said defender could chip down on Davis as he rolls to take away the rim. By making the vast majority of these dribble handoffs and ball screens between LeBron and the Brow on the empty side, the Lakers are leveraging ways to get Davis open at the hoop.
If the corner is filled, Davis must be incredibly quick at catching and finishing, and LeBron must thread the needle before another defender can get involved the play:
Most teams will respond by sending an extra defender on the weak side towards the lane to add clutter and congestion. Less space means less area for a Laker to spring free.
Let's remember who we're talking about here, however. This is LeBron freakin' James, one of the greatest players ever. His brain has been programmed to see defenses that cheat these plays. Plus, the Lakers have just enough 3-point shooting that sagging into the lane to prevent a layup or dunk will undoubtedly result in a catch-and-shoot jumper.
LeBron doesn't miss these guys when they're open:
There's one other principle about this formation that is difficult to guard: the pick-and-pop.
Davis has been shooting the 3-pointer more frequently than before, and while his percentages aren't higher, they're also not much lower than his career averages. Defenses can collapse on LeBron and flood the lane, but there's no defense for a pick-and-pop to the top of the key with the formation the Lakers use. They pin their big to the baseline and prevent any X-out involving the two big defenders.
The rest of the movement is dependent on which formation they use. Sometimes the Lakers will fill both corners, meaning there are three players in purple and gold standing along the baseline. Thus, all their defenders are too far away from the top of the key to rotate to Davis.
Other times the Lakers will empty the side for the pick-and-pop, with two shooters on the weak-side: one in the corner and one on the wing. The offensive player on the wing is instructed to cut at a 45-degree angle to the rim as soon as the pass is thrown to a popping Davis.
That puts his man in jail: He can leave the cutter alone going to the rim to stunt at Davis, or can stick with his man and let Davis shoot. More often than not, defenses opt for the latter.
Here's a clip from both formations, demonstrating the principles of Lakers basketball:
A Favorite Play: Double Drag
Now let's talk play calling. Great coaches teach principles so their teams know how to mesh and read each other on the fly. Against established defenses, however, more nuanced coordination and variation is required.
That's where play calls and different sets come into the equation.
Vogel has always been a coach with heavy set plays, dating back to his days with the Indiana Pacers. One, in particular, gets the Lakers open looks while getting a LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll:
There's a lot going on here in a short amount of time. First is the cutter along the baseline, clearing out so LeBron is alone on the wing. When that player can shoot it, it clears an extra defender out of the play. Then comes a stagger for Danny Green, the Lakers' most dangerous shooting threat and a crafty, smart veteran.
Green makes movements towards James and sets the first of a double ball screen—with Davis being the second. Green is automatically popping the screen, but the surprise isn't part of the equation. The point is to get to the Davis-James ball screen and have Danny Green so high that his man isn't able to tag the rolling Davis.
That leaves Davis to dart to the rim amid an easy read for James. If Davis is open, LBJ throws the lob. If he's not, McGee or the shooter in his line of sight will be open.
Sets like these help leverage the unique abilities of two of the game's best. They don't overextend the team's pick-and-roll usage, but this is their bread-and-butter in close games or when they need a bucket. Vogel is likely to keep these in his back pocket for the postseason and sprinkle in a few more sets that get these two rolling in ball screens.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).