Welcome to NBA Jam week on NBA.com where all week long we're celebrating the remarkable collection of star duos throughout the NBA and viewing the upcoming season through the prism of what these duos mean entering 2019-20.
What happens when the single-most versatile offensive player in NBA history comes teammates with the single-most versatile big man in today's game?
We're about to find out in Los Angeles this season with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
While James has played with a number of talented big men in his NBA career, none of them come close to matching the versatility of Davis. The six-time All-Star is a mix of Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, JaVale McGee and Chris Andersen in the best way possible as someone who can step out to the 3-point line and play well above the rim.
Even though James is entering the twilight of his career, the two form arguably the best duo in the league because of how well they complement each other. One way in which that should materialize immediately is in pick-and-rolls, where they both generate the bulk of their offence.
James has long been one of the league's best pick-and-roll scorers, his first season with the Lakers being no exception. According to NBA.com, more than a quarter of his scoring came as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and he ranked in the 85th percentile with almost a point per possession, putting him on the same page as James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, to name a few.
Although James isn't the off-the-dribble shooter that they are, it's a part of his game that he's fine-tuned in the second half of his career. He's made 39.2 percent of his 2-point pull-ups and 34.8 percent of his 3-point pull-ups since 2016-17, marks that are just good enough to keep defences honest and free him up to do what he does best - attack the basket.
Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the only player in the league who puts as much pressure on defences as James does when he gets downhill. He's still a bulldozer who can finish over and through defenders, the combination of which made him one of the most efficient scorers in the restricted area last season.
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Now, imagine pairing that player with someone who can do this...
...as well as this:
Davis saw his effectiveness as a roll man drop last season, but nobody averaged more points per game than him on those plays in 2015-16 and 2016-17. He then peaked in terms of efficiency in 2017-18, ranking in the 72nd percentile with 1.18 points per possession.
Put simply: Los Angeles now has two of the most dominant pick-and-rolls players in the league in James and Davis, made all the more dangerous by James being one of the greatest passers this league has ever seen.
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It bodes well for Davis that McGee was on the receiving end of 88 of James's assists last season, the second-most on the Lakers behind only Kyle Kuzma. James was a big reason why McGee finished the season as one of the league leaders in scoring as a roll man, and he did so at hyper levels of efficiency.
It's easy to imagine James having a similar impact on Davis. Davis is quicker and more athletic than McGee. He's got better hands. He's got better instincts. He's the type of player who doesn't need someone like James to get good looks and yet he's about to feast like never before.
With James drawing a steady dose of double-teams, Davis should benefit immensely from getting many of the same looks as McGee did last season.
It will, of course, be a mutually beneficial relationship. A solid mid-range shooter who is working on expanding his range out to the 3-point line, Davis will open up the floor for James in the same ways Love and Bosh could and McGee and Andersen couldn't.
Complicating matters further for opponents is Davis and James are both more than capable of creating their own shot against mismatches. According to NBA.com, only Harden and John Wall averaged more points per game in isolation than James last season. Davis, on the other hand, finished behind only eight players in points per game out of the post.
As a result, switching won't be much of a solution. The Lakers will otherwise clear the floor for whichever one of their superstars has a greater advantage - James against a slower-footed defender from the perimeter, Davis against a small defender on the block.
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Love might be the best post-up player James has ever played with to this point of his career. (Bosh was an excellent post-up player, but he didn't post-up with nearly the same frequency in Miami as he did in Toronto, focusing instead on being a stretch four). The biggest difference between Love and Davis is that Love was always the third option in Cleveland, whereas Davis is clearly the second option in Los Angeles.
That alone should lead to far more opportunities for Davis to create his own offence with his back to the basket when a mismatch presents itself.
None of this is to say pick-and-rolls between James and Davis will be completely unstoppable. One problem they're inevitably going to face is that Davis's preference to play power forward will cramp their spacing, as it will require one of McGee or Dwight Howard - neither of whom are threats to score outside of the restricted area - to be on the floor for most of the game. McGee or Howard camping out in the dunker spot will make it easier for the opposing team's centre to slide over and clog the paint for either James and Davis.
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Additionally, the Lakers learned from their mistakes of last offseason by signing more shooters this summer, but they're still counting on the likes of Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley to space the floor at a high rate. The Lakers have at least two knockdown shooters off the bench in Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook, only it remains to be seen how prominently they're featured in the rotation due to their limitations as defenders and playmakers.
Even so, the Lakers only need two of those players to pop because Danny Green, who finished second in the league in 3-point percentage (45.5) last season, will almost always be on the court with James and Davis. And with their closing lineup likely revolving around Davis at centre, those pick-and-rolls between him and James could be the key to the Lakers unlocking their full-blown potential on offence.
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Think about it like this: James has proven that he can do it all with the ball in his hands throughout his 16-year career. He's a one-on-one bully in isolation. He's skilled on the blocks when posting up. He's an unstoppable freight train in transition. He's among the smartest passers we've ever seen and capable of surgical precision when picking apart gaps in a defence. He's constantly tinkering and re-inventing his game to remain at the absolute peak of his powers.
Now flanked by Davis in his prime, he's about to do it again. There's not another pick-and-roll combination in the league like the one we're about to see in Los Angeles and it's one that could lead to James once again re-asserting himself as the undisputed King.
Two words for the other 29 teams: good luck.
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