Last season, the Los Angeles Lakers ran — a lot.
The high-tempo style that would become their offensive identity did not happen by accident, but rather was a deliberate creation that was conceived last year on draft night with their selections of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
The team was suddenly flooded with young, athletic and fast players who loved to storm down the floor every chance they got, and they did.
By season’s end, the Lakers would go on to trail only the Golden State Warriors in terms of transition frequency (their percentage of possessions that started with a transition opportunity) with a 18.6 percent mark, according to Cleaning the Glass. When Ball was on the floor, that number rose to a hyperspace-adjacent 19.8 percent.
That was last season though, and now LeBron James will have the ball in his hands. A lot. That reality has led many to raise the question — will James slow the Lakers down?
The basis for the argument that James will ground the Lakers’ running game is primarily centered on the common misperception of the style in which James’ led teams have played.
While there is concrete backing to why his teams’ are often viewed as methodical, organized, and half-court heavy, there are other elements about him and his former teams that are often misunderstood.
Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a behemoth of a team in the half court when James was on the floor, averaging 100.8 points per 100 half-court plays, which would have ranked as the second-best rate in the league if extrapolated against other team’s full seasons.
The massive advantage of having James and his gravity in a half-court set is easily seen within those numbers, but the actual rate at which the Cavaliers played in those circumstances was not as high as many would typically think.
Among the league, Cleveland had the ninth-fewest percent of their plays come within the half-court, or against a set defense. This means that James’ Cavaliers often preferred to attack when their defenders were on their heels, and when they were on the move.
Running counterintuitive to what many would believe, the Cavaliers’ have quietly been one of the more eager and efficient transition teams in the league primarily with James at the helm.
Last season, Cleveland had the sixth-highest transition frequency in the league with a 16.6 percent rate. With James on the floor this number rose to 16.9 percent (nearly matching the Phoenix Suns’ transition number). When James sat, the number fell to 15.6 percent, which would have tied for 12th in the NBA.
This was not an anomaly. Going back a season prior, the Cavaliers had a shockingly high 18.3 percent transition frequency with James on the floor (nearly matching the Lakers’ rate this past season) and saw their running game plummet when he was off with a frequency of 12.9 percent.
One could view these past two season’s worth of data as proof that James has lost a step considering the dip in Cleveland’s transition frequency, but contextually they were different squads.
In the 2016-17 season, James had the benefit of having Kyrie Irving as a running mate, who not only had the astute ability to grab and go, push tempo, and create for others in transition, but was young.
Last season, LeBron was the sole member of the fluctuating Cavaliers with these abilities. Although he still had the excellent perimeter threats of Kevin Love and Kyle Korver filling the wings beside him, the rest of the roster left much to be desired in terms of creating on the break.
This is expected to change this year with the Lakers’ abundance of athletic players built to run and dunk, creating what potentially could be a devastating team on the break.
Despite not having an ideal roster for a high-tempo offense, James still helped lead the Cavaliers to the eighth-best transition efficiency (how many points a team scored per 100 transition plays), an area in which the Lakers struggled last season and where James will immediately bolster their attack.
Although the team had a high transition rate last season, the Lakers were a mere 21st in efficiency due to their lack of playmaking and finishing ability. James can do both.
Basically, James needed finishers and the Lakers needed a creator, and both sides may have gotten exactly what they were looking for in July.
However, the numbers don’t mean anything if James isn’t willing to get out and run, but early indications are that James is looking to do exactly that. He recently called the idea of not playing with pace “stupid,” and Luke Walton has raved about the team’s pace and selflessness so far in preseason play:
“I love the pace so far. We’ve had multiple plays a game where the other team scores and we take it out and the ball doesn’t hit the ground,” Walton said before the Lakers took on the LA Clippers on Saturday night. “Three passes later we’re laying it up back in their basket. When we get stops, our running game has been beautiful, guys have been selfless, making extra passes.”
Despite playing sparingly, James has been a central part to Walton’s description of the team’s transition game thus far during exhibition, demonstrating that playing fast does not simply mean sprinting the ball up the court, but also being able to hit teammates in stride.
Last season, Ball notably made these types of full-court passes with regularity en route to many early scoring opportunities for his teammates. Having another playmaker who not only can secure the rebound, but instantly survey the floor and make this type of read will make for exciting scoring chances.
The Lakers will also be able to reap the benefits of James’ frightening frame and athleticism as a finisher. According to Synergy, James scored 1.57 points per possession as as a trailer in transition, which was in the 93rd percentile in the NBA.
How different the Lakers will look next season with James is too early to tell based on four preseason games, but assuming he will stifle the contagious energy and speed they exhibited last year is to willfully ignore a ton evidence to the contrary.
James offers the Lakers a lot of what they lacked last season, and in some regards vise-versa. Surrounded by a cast of young and hungry players, James and his new teammates can potentially create something that is both new and familiar. A running and gunning Lakers team for the modern era.
A new Showtime.
Statistics provided by: Cleaning the glass and Synergy. You can follow this author on twitter: @AlexmRegla