The 2019-20 season is one of the most highly anticipated in NBA history. After a riveting offseason, there is no clear title favorite for the firs time in nearly a decade. To add to the drama, two of the league’s top contenders share a city and even an arena. In Game 1 of the Battle for LA, the Clippers bested their in-city rival on Tuesday night, 112-102. Kawhi Leonard went off for 30, the Clippers’ bench was excellent, and LeBron looked like the third best player in the game. But it’s often too easy to overreact to an opening night game. So instead of reacting to the results, let’s react to the strategy and the way shots were created by these two teams.
The Post-Heavy Lakers
I, for one, was really surprised by how many post-ups we saw from the Lakers. According to NBA.com, they logged 20 post-up shot attempts, which doesn’t include any time they passed out of the post. Last season, the Spurs (of course) led the league with 13.3, so that’s a pretty post-heavy game we saw from the Lakers… last year the Lakers only averaged 5.8!
Here’s your pretty standard ‘LeBron bullies his way to the basket’ play. It’ll get the job done.
Here’s a similar play from Davis, who was the #1 source of the Lakers’ post-up buckets.
The Lakers also used the post to create other shots. Here’s a very simple example where the Clippers collapse on LeBron in the post, and he finds Danny Green for a spot-up three.
In another example of using the post to create open looks, watch JaVale McGee. McGee is lurking around the high post until his man, Ivica Zubac, goes over to help on Davis. Credit to AD, he instantly recognizes this and hits JaVale cutting to the basket.
Here, LeBron performs a very similar action, finding McGee on a backdoor cut for another dunk.
This is a more complicated way to play make out of the post. In this clip, Davis is “posted-up” so far away from the basket, he runs a little handoff play with KCP. See Davis hand the ball off to KCP and immediately screen KCP’s man. With an open lane to the basket, Caldwell-Pope draws the help defense and hits Troy Daniels for a corner three.
The Lakers were actually pretty efficient through their post-ups, but it’s unusual to see an offense run this way. Most NBA offenses are initiated by a high pick & roll, an off-ball screen, or a high handoff. Using the post to initiate offense is a more traditional style of basketball that we don’t see as much. I’d expect the Lakers to run more pick & roll and spaced out offense to get LeBron running downhill like he does so well, but it will be interesting to see the Lakers’ balance between post-ups and pick & roll as the season progresses.
Clips Pick & Rolls (feat. Lou + Trez)
Last season, without Kawhi (or Paul George), the Clippers won 48 games!! That’s one less than the PG + Russ Thunder and the Kyrie + Horford Celtics. They were exciting and fun, but way better than you might recall. Even with Kawhi on the team, we saw lots of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell on Tuesday night. Williams and Harrell had the best plus/minuses in the game, +15 for Trez and +13 for Lou. Williams scored 21 points on 8-14 shooting, and Harrell scored 17, shooting 7-11. This is exactly what the Clippers need alongside their two superstars, one of whom was in a tuxedo on the sideline. Lou and Trez specialize running pick & rolls. Williams is one of the league’s best creators off the dribble, and Harrell an elite rim-runner barreling towards the basket.
In this first clip, Lou’s defender can’t get over the screen, so he blows by Dwight Howard for a layup.
Here, JaVale McGee takes one too many steps up, and Harrell rolls by him for a lay-in of his own.
But when the Lakers defenders try to collapse in on the pick & roll, Lou kicks it out to a shooter, this time JaMychal Green
This time, Lou hits Trez quickly on the roll, and this time it’s Harrell who is met with a collapse of defenders, and it’s his turn to find a shooter, this time it’s Landry Shamet.
These pick & rolls are a staple of the Clippers’ offense. They ran 31 pick & rolls that led to a shot attempt, 22 by the ball handler and 9 by the roll man. Last season, LAC was 4th in roll man attempts and 1st in ball handler ones. So these pick & rolls are nothing new for them. But let’s transition to the other side of the ball…
The Lakers’ Drop Defense
As spacing and pick & roll centered offenses have been taking over the NBA in the past few seasons, pick & roll defense has become a hot topic and a critical strategic point for teams. Some just switch screens, but this gives the other team a chance to hunt poor defenders in isolation. It’s hard to switch when you’ve got a center who can’t move his feet on the perimeter. Another style that some teams implement is drop defense. Probably best executed by Denver, this strategy allows your center (or whoever’s guarding the screener) to “drop”, and stay down, defending the rim, as the guard defender stays up and desperately tries to fight over the screen. This strategy allows midrange pullups, as you can infer, and it also puts pressure on the other three defenders to collapse a bit and then rotate quickly on kick-outs.
Watch Dwight Howard in this clip. As Harrell tries to screen KCP (it takes a few tries), Williams dribbles back and forth until he gets an opportunity to attack. Finally, Harrell’s pick blocks KCP’s path, and Lou drives… with Dwight still waiting in the paint, Lou simply pulls up and knocks down the jumper.
Here’s another example. This time the big is JaVale McGee. As Harrell sets his pick above the three-point line, JaVale hardly even gets out of the paint. In this clip, the pick isn’t quite as effective, and Avery Bradley tries to recover, but he’s gotta do it all on his own, and Lou hits the jumper.
There’s a lot of problems in this clip… I think LeBron is out of position too. But the same idea applies, as Anthony Davis finds himself allowing a Lou Williams floater, and another bucket.
So what should the Lakers do? First, we should entertain the idea that this is the correct strategy. In general, it’s wise to allow midrange jumpers instead of threes and layups/dunks. Midrange shots are by far the least efficient shot in the game, as any modern basketball fan knows. Still, when these pullup jumpers are so wide open, it’s a different story. Check out Lou Williams’ shot chart from Tuesday’s game. He was 5-7 on midrange pullups… 6-8 if you count the floater in the lane there. Of course, this game is a small sample size, but 5-7 equates to 1.43 points per shot, that’s incredibly efficient. That’s the same value as a three that you hit 47.7% of the time. My point is, that’s not the shot you want to give your opponent.
But the Lakers don’t exactly have a lot of options. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee would really struggle to switch. They could try to trap or ‘ice’, but that also requires lots of help from the other three guys. The real solution here is to play Anthony Davis at the 5. I know, I know, he doesn’t want to, but we saw it at the end of Tuesday’s game, and we’ll see it again when the Lakers are done messing around. On both ends of the floor, their best lineups are when LeBron and Davis are the two biggest guys.
Kawhi Taking Over
Can we just marvel at Kawhi Leonard? As I mentioned, last year’s Clippers team was good. They were closer to a 50-win season than a .500 one. They were able to bring back most of their pieces, save SGA and Gallinari, while acquiring two of the best players in the NBA. Even without Paul George, this team looked like the title favorite on Tuesday. Kawhi is an interesting superstar because unlike LeBron, Harden, or Curry, the offense doesn’t always run through him. We just watched like ten Clippers offense videos with no Kawhi touches. As we saw on the Raptors last year, you can run your offense throughout the game, including him as just another player, and then when you need an isolation bucket, he’ll come through. Leonard dropped 30 points on just 19 shots Tuesday. He’s got an impressive ability to diagnose exactly when his team needs him to take over.
Kawhi’s field goal attempts are always of incredibly high difficulty. Heading towards his favorite spot, he stops on a dime and buries this pullup over KCP to tie the game.
Here’s another one. This one’s a shot clock buzzer-beater. Even the most beautiful of offenses won’t always create a good look in 24 seconds. Having a guy who and hit these tough midrange shots is so valuable for end of clock situations. (Although analytics often knock the midrange shot, they usually mean early in the shot clock… *cough* russell westbrook *cough*)
There’s not a lot a defense can do against this stuff. The Lakers started doubling, and Kawhi made some perfect reads to find open teammates.
This next clip is a second-level read. Jared Dudley, guarding Harrell, comes over to help on Kawhi. Then LeBron, guarding Moe Harkless in the corner, rotates to help on Dudleys’ guy (Harrell) on the block. Here, Kawhi notices this rotation, and instead of passing to Harrell (now guarded by LeBron) he finds LeBron’s guy, Harkless, wide open for a corner three. This next level of playmaking is the kind of stuff that can really make Kawhi an even more dominant offensive player.
The Danny Green Game
The Lakers’ leading scorer in this game wasn’t LeBron or Anthony Davis… it was Danny Green, who even took fewer shots than the two stars. 28 points on 10-14 shooting, 4-5 from three. It was a near-perfect night. And while we did see Green hit some tough shots off the dribble, we also noticed the Lakers clearly featuring him in their offense, running him off screens and cuts.
Here, Green cuts baseline to the far corner, and Dwight Howard sets him a screen on the block. It’s also bad defense from Lou, but good play design results in a wide-open triple.
Here’s Green’s shot chart from Tuesday. What an impressive and efficient game.
This isn’t quite as big as the first few concepts, but it is noteworthy that Vogel and the Lakers ran specific plays to get Green looks, rather than relying on spot-ups. Toronto didn’t really utilize Green in this way. Last season, he only attempted 1.2 shots per game off screens and 0.2 off handoffs. His bread and butter were spot-ups, with 3.2 attempts per game, 8th most in the NBA. Green will definitely get some spot-up opportunities this year off LeBron and Davis, but it’ll be interesting to see if he gets some increased responsibility on these drawn up looks, too.
The Transition Difference
According to NBA.com’s stats, the Lakers only registered 5 fastbreak points on Tuesday. The Clippers? 22. Oddly enough, the Lakers were one of the league’s more prolific transition teams in 2018-19, averaging 24.5 fastbreak points per game, 4th in the NBA, while the Clippers put up 16.4, in the middle of the pack. On Tuesday it was clear the Lakers wanted to slow down the tempo. Possibly because of their new star big man, or maybe thanks to their new coaching staff, but either way it seemed to be a point of emphasis. On the other hand, the Clippers weren’t afraid to push the pace. Lots of these fastbreaks came off Laker turnovers, and after adding two of the league’s best two-way players, it stands to reason the Clips want to use these takeaways to get easy buckets.
This break comes off a simple defensive rebound. The Lakers’ defense isn’t in position yet, and LeBron gets lazy, allowing a JaMychal Green dunk.
Here’s one off a steal. Look how quickly the Clippers turn and get down the court, while a few Lakers tarry. This time Quinn Cook turns it over and frustratedly guards the ball instead of getting back to his man. (Haven’t we all done this in pickup?) And it’s his man, Landry Shamet, who knocks down the transition three.
One more clip. Here, Lou gets the steal and instantly looks upcourt to a slashing Harrell. Having a center like Harrell is such an advantage for a team that wants to run. Davis is guarding Harrell in this clip. Look how far behind he is! Sometimes it’s laziness, but other times you have to credit the defense to offense turnaround.
No LeBron/AD Pick & Roll?
I saved this one for last. As I mentioned earlier, the Clippers attempted 31 shots out of pick & rolls Tuesday night. The Lakers only attempted 16. That’s quite a dramatic difference. 14 of those were shots by the ball handler and only 2 by the roll man. Now I understand the post was a big part of the Lakers’ offense, but when you have Anthony Davis, you need to let him roll to the rim. And when you have LeBron James, you have to let him play make out of the pick and roll. And when you have BOTH OF THEM…. DO A PICK AND ROLL WITH BOTH OF THEM!?!? NBA.com’s player pick & roll stats aren’t in yet, just team, but I watched the game and a bunch of highlight compilations for this piece, and I’ve seen zero instances of Davis finishing a pick & roll. That’s pretty laughable. Now, to be fair, the Lakers did run plenty of James/Davis pick & roll in the preseason, so it’s not like Frank Vogel is blind to the idea, but I just don’t understand why it wasn’t featured in the offense more. Here are some of the few pick & rolls they ran Tuesday night.
Of the few LeBron pick & rolls we saw, Dwight Howard was the screener for most of them. Perplexing. On this one, King James just overpowers Montrezl Harrell in the lane with a strong finish.
Here’s another. It’s a weaker screen from Howard, but LeBron just uses it to create one extra step of misdirection from the defender and finishes with an impressive layup.
LeBron is one of the greatest pick & roll players ever. Yes, his strength and finishing is a big part of that, but he’s also a genius playmaker. Remember that second-level read that Kawhi made earlier? Here we see an example of that ‘ice’ tactic on pick & rolls. The Clippers double LeBron on the pick, and Dwight rolls. Dwight’s open for a split second, but the other three Clippers step in to help guard Dwight. LeBron sees this, and passes to Jared Dudley, whose man was one of the ‘other three guys’. The defender (JaMychal Green) stepped in to help on Howard, which wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision, but LeBron is just playing chess instead of checkers, finding Dudley instead of Dwight, resulting in a three. This is what makes LeBron James great.
See what LeBron can do in a spaced out pick & roll offense? Again, this kind of hinges on the center problem, too. It’s hard to run a LeBron/Davis pick & roll with a non-shooter like JaVale or Dwight on the floor. We’ve known for a decade now that the best offense around LeBron is shooters he can kick the ball out to. But LeBron’s never had a great roll guy. He and Davis together present some incredible opportunities but putting a non-shooting center on the court clogs up that potential. How sad is it that all three of those clips were LeBron/Dwight?? You’d think Davis was out with an injury and Dwight was replacing. Check out some preseason clips of LeBron/Davis pick & rolls.
This is just textbook. (Also, look how Davis angles himself setting the screen. This gives Bron a clear path straight to the basket. He picks up enough steam to finish through Draymond Green).
Wow, I love this play. It’s kind of an off-ball pick & roll. Davis sets the pick on the wing and LeBron cuts from underneath Davis, catching the pass as he curls around the screen. LeBron’s guy follows him over the screen, forcing Draymond to step up and help, which gives Davis a lane to roll for a dunk.
In this clip, Davis sets the high screen, and then short rolls. The ‘short roll’ is basically when the roll man catches the ball while he’s still a ways from the basket, and then he makes a decision on the play–shooting a jumper, driving it himself, or finding another teammate if the defense rotates. This is Draymond Green’s specialty. This is one option the Lakers could run with McGee or Dwight in the game, too, because it doesn’t demand the same spacing a full pick & roll does. Here, Davis finds JaVale for a lob because JaVale’s guy (Marquese Chriss) steps up to defend Davis. It’s reminiscent of a Warriors play where Steph passes to Draymond in the short roll, and Draymond hits Kevon Looney on the lob.
Last one. Here, Davis slips the screen. You see the Warriors’ plan is to block off this pick & roll… McKinnie is guarding LeBron, and Draymond is guarding Davis. The Warriors strategy is to cut off the play by having McKinnie cheat the screen. He gets to LeBron’s right side, where he anticipates the screen is coming, so he can stay on LeBron. Meanwhile, Draymond immediately steps in LeBron’s path. Golden State’s hope is that McKinnie can easily get through the Davis screen, while Draymond is ready to defend the roll. BUT… Davis slips the screen, meaning he never even sets one. When AD sees McKinnie step in the way, he improvises and rolls right then and there. This time of high IQ play is the reason we need more LeBron/Davis pick & rolls.
The cat and mouse of pick & roll offense and defense has become a staple of the NBA… hopefully, we see more Davis running it, and less Dwight Howard (no offense)
Clippers: I assume we’ll continue to see a pick & roll heavy offense from LAC. Can Lou Williams keep this efficiency up? What about Kawhi? Will he continue to be an incredibly reliable safety blanket? And how much will the Clips continue to push the pace? Whatever the answers are, this team looked like a title favorite on opening night. Let’s see if they keep it up.
Lakers: Post-ups vs pick & roll. Will things balance out? Will we see less post-game and more spaced out pick & roll offense in future games? Will Frank Vogel keep calling up sets for Danny Green? Can Green continue to deliver if he really proves to be a big part of this offense? And will the Lakers utilize Anthony Davis as the roll man… instead of Dwight Howard?? (Let’s hope so).
It was fun to break down the film from this opening night game. To me, the best part about a wild offseason is that we get to see lots of new teams on the court. I can’t wait to see how teams move their new pieces around the chessboard this season.