I was sitting in bed after the Cavs took care of business against Phoenix when the always excellent Brent Barry said something that captured my attention. To paraphrase, he said that for players who have always been in strict offensive systems, offense is a largely physical task. You go through the motions of running a set 1,000 times and rely on the play to do the mental work for you.
The ball will find the open man.
But when you come to a team like Cleveland that runs a freelancing style, offense is largely a mental task. You have to think about the best spots to stand, cut, or set screens to create passing angles off the ball. Without the physical repetitions, your mind can often be in overdrive.
Instead of the ball finding the open man, LeBron James completes that task.
When people say LeBron is the system, this is what they mean.
James has scored 1,802 points this season. His assists have created an additional 1,488 points. In sum, he has accounted for 44.5 percent of Cleveland’s offensive output. If you account solely for points scored when he is on the floor, that number jumps to 57.1 percent.
James doesn’t post the astronomical usage rates of James Harden or Russell Westbrook, but he is in full control of Cleveland’s offense. He is the “system.”
In his comments above, Barry was referencing the adjustment period for Cleveland’s new pieces following the trades.
Take Rodney Hood, for example. His usage rate is down 10 percent from his career-high mark in Utah. He is shooting 41.2 percent on wide open three pointers in Cleveland — a mark that would rank in the 72nd percentile. But he is taking nearly as made contested threes as open ones, bringing his overall 3-point percentage down to 33 percent.
Perhaps the largest indication of his difficulty to find his way is that Hood has finished zero possessions off a cut since joining Cleveland. The Cavs average right around 8 cuts per game this season (per Synergy) and, along with off ball screens, it is a staple of any LeBron James offense.
The Cavs have one set play for him (I’m sure you can all picture it in your head right now). A simple dribble handoff that gets him coming right to left off a feed from Larry Nance Jr.
His assist percentage is down to a career-low 7.6 percent. As a general matter, it seems as like every time Hood touches the ball he feels he has to make something happen.
This possession is a good indicator of that mindset. After the offensive rebound, the ball swings around the perimeter to Hood. All he has to do is make one extra pass to a wide open Jordan Clarkson for three. But instead, he attempts to make a dribble move back to his right and commits an offensive foul as a result.
And this isn’t restricted to Hood. George Hill is attempting only 19 percent of his shots as above the break three pointers. That would be his lowest mark since 2010-11 — his final year in San Antonio.
Hill’s Per 36 minute numbers in terms of his shot attempts, 3 point attempts and free throw attempts are all in line with his career norms. He’s shooting on 33 percent on wide open threes and 31.3 percent on catch and shoot threes. That will likely come around.
But the Cavs would likely prefer him to be even more aggressive — especially as the de facto secondary creator with Kevin Love out of the lineup. Unsurprisingly, much of this will look a lot simpler with Love back and players pushed down a roll.
But it is clear that guys are adjusting. And this is nothing new. Kyle Korver — who was traded to the Cavs last season in the midst of a long road swing — frustrated fans out of the gate. It was not until his 15th game in a Cleveland uniform that Korver busted out in a way only he could, draining 8-9 from behind the arc in a win at Indiana.
Even one of the best shooters in NBA history struggled in his initial time playing alongside James. Korver was another guy — coming from Atlanta — who was used to playing strict system basketball. It was difficult for him to trade in a bit of his constant motion for spotting up and just letting it fly.
The wide pindown actions for Korver that have so frequently befuddled defenses this season were not a staple of the playbook in 2016-17.
The same can be said for Channing Frye after he came over from Orlando in the 2015-16 campaign. In his eighth game after being traded, Frye went 5 for 7 from three in a win over the Lakers at the Staples Center. But he arguably never found his footing until the playoffs.
Jae Crowder — thought to be a perfect fit next to James not only for his defense, but also for his cutting — never really got it before being shipped to Utah at the Trade Deadline. Not everyone does.
For traditional big men, the adjustment is much easier. Nance (and Timofey Mozgov before him) has demonstrated that perfectly.
The job of a rim-rolling five is remarkably simple in a James-dominated offense. Instead of having to worry about complex sets or having to create offense from the block, your job boils down to two things:
- Set good screens
- Roll hard to the rim
That’s it. Simple, right?
Nance is averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 59.5 percent from the field next to James. Seventeen of his 63 made field goals in a Cleveland uniform have been assisted by James.
The difference in difficulty for Nance compared to a guard adjusting their game to fit next to James is night and day.
So, Barry’s comments got me thinking. If I were LeBron James or Ty Lue or any of the Cavs’ assistant coaches, what would I be telling the new guys? And the first thought that popped into my head was something along the lines of “You are going to get open shots. Shoot them.”
Let me digress for one minute. If you follow me on Twitter, you are certainly aware of my significant frustration with Jeff Green’s three-point attempts. Green is attempting 5.2 3 pointers per 36 minutes since the All-Star Break (despite shooting just 20 percent on these shots) after attempting only 2.9 per 36 minutes before the Break. The number goes up to 5.4 per 36 minutes in March — a staggering rate for someone shooting as poorly as Green.
But when viewed through the prism of the advice I mentioned above, suddenly Green’s uptick makes a lot more sense. LeBron has always implored guys to shoot the ball when they are open so it makes sense that this message would be repeated constantly at practice.
From a rational perspective, it makes sense that Green would believe the message to apply to the entire team. As LeBron and the staff attempt to integrate the new players, everyone is undoubtedly being told to let it fly now and ask questions later.
This is an important step in the adjustment period for new players learning to exist in James’ ecosystem. In addition to shooting when open, more repetitions begins to build that muscle memory Barry was talking about. Players begin to read that taking two steps closer to the corner creates a better passing angle or setting a flare screen occupies the defense.
The simplest prediction I can make is that Rodney Hood will not end the season finishing zero possessions on cuts. He and Hill will get more comfortable. Adding Love will help.
When things do come together, the results are often transformative for these role players. Kyle Korver shoots nearly 10 percent better from three with James on the floor this year. JR Smith turned into one of the best screening guards in basketball — a quality that helped Cleveland attack Steph Curry in the 2016 Finals. Matthew Dellavedova got PAID.
The LeBron James offensive system works.
It is a proven path to success over a large sample of many offensive seasons. Oh, and it works pretty well in the playoffs, too.
But getting there is a process and it is a process that can at times be discouraging. There have been bumps in the road where the offense feels stagnant. They have been exacerbated by injuries. I’m sure it has been frustrating for fans to watch.
The odds are that Cleveland’s offense is going to be better than just fine. Because, as Barry said, players will build those mental reps. And LeBron James will always find the open man.