Although there is no shortage of examples of individual defining moments for new Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James floating around NBA fans’ shared consciousness, the majority of his greatest seasons, and accolades, were shared by he and some of his most prolific teammates.
James, long acclaimed for his passing acumen and team-first mentality, is one of the game’s absolute best in getting the most from his teammate’s set of individual skills. This is one of the primary reasons we often see his teams consistently overachieve even in seasons in which he has inadequate rosters around him.
But of all the types of players James has played with in his 15-year career, the player archetype he has meshed with the best has been that of a dynamic front court spacer.
In all three championships James has won, his teams have had significant contributions from their respective big men through the on-court chemistry they built with James himself.
In Miami, James famously formed the “Big 3” with fellow 2003 draft alumni Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in route to his first two NBA championships.
Although Bosh was often perceived as the tertiary option of the group, James’ innate chemistry with the versatile big led to him having more assists (274) go to Bosh, compared to the ultra slashing Wade (184) in the Heat’s two championship seasons combined.
In Cleveland, James once again found himself paired with one of the more offensively productive and reliable big men in recent history in five time All-Star Kevin Love.
The trio of James, Love, and Kyrie Irving helped bring the city of Cleveland it’s first ever NBA championship in the 2015-16 season.
Although he was often the basis of trade speculation and criticism throughout James’ second tenure with the Cavaliers, Love’s spacing ability proved to be a devastating cog in Cleveland’s spread offense next to the gravity inducing combination of James’ and Irving’s drives.
During the Cavaliers’ championship season, James keyed in on Love’s perimeter shooting as he assisted on 126 of Love’s makes, compared to only 42 of Irving’s buckets.
After an offseason trade that saw Irving shipped to Boston, James’ relied on Love’s shooting more than ever last year, assisting on a whopping 141 of Love’s makes, accounting for nearly 42 percent of Love’s total field goals.
With James now officially entering the next stage of his career as a member of the Lakers, many have questioned whether or not the current roster and it’s young core have the type of players James has won rings with in the past.
And while the answer to that question is still to be determined, there were enough glimpses last season to predict the team may have already drafted LeBron’s next skilled, sweet-shooting frontcourt partner — Kyle Kuzma.
The 6’9” Ute flashed an impressively developed offensive repertoire in his rookie campaign with the purple and gold. Equipped with a lightning quick trigger from deep, an array of spin moves, and an absurd hook shot, Kuzma showed he was ready to score in the league from day one.
The former 27th overall pick finished the year attempting and making the second most threes, was second in points per game, and second in double-doubles among rookies (Ben Simmons was first) en route to his First Team All-Rookie selection.
In theory, Kuzma’s spatial gravity, specifically when slotted in the front court, is exactly what James has historically leveraged against opposing defenses, and makes for a potential dynamic pairing as Kuzma enters his prime during James’ current contract.
In order for the upcoming NBA sophomore to reach that potential, and production, of James’ aforementioned go to targets on offense, he needs to significantly improve in one area — being more efficient as a pick and pop/roll finisher.
Last season, Kuzma only had 82 possessions as the pick and roll man, scoring in the 29th percentile of the league with an average 0.98 points per possessions in these play types, per Synergy. Comparatively, Kevin Love had 109 possessions, despite playing in 18 less games, and his 1.11 points per possession as the finisher ranked in the 60th percentile of the league.
Contextually, there is a lot to unfold there.
First off, it is important to recognize the value of James’ gravity as the pick and roll ball handler, as often teams have sagged off the roll/popping screener to help their teammate in containing James’ drives. This is a primary reason we see Love’s frequency and efficiency at a higher number.
Teams were more willing to switch on the Lakers’ pick and roll attempts because of the lack of their ball handler’s driving threat/gravity, resulting in less open attempts for Kuzma in these scenarios compared to Love.
And most evidently, Kuzma does not have the reps or schematic consistency Love has had in his NBA career as he enters only his second season of work.
This is seen in his less-than-ideal screen setting. Kuzma rarely provides much oomph as a screener and has a bit of awkward footwork after the point of contact as well, but there are enough encouraging signs that he could lead one to believe he will get to the upper echelon level.
Here the Lakers run a double-drag screen for Isaiah Thomas in which Kuzma nicely slips for the easy catch-and-shoot opportunity. The defense collapses when the Hawks’ front court have to help as Dennis Schroder tries to recover, resulting in a late John Collins’ close out.
This an area in which Kuzma proved to be effective as a rookie. Scoring 1.15 points per possession on no dribble jumpers off slipping the pick, Kuzma was better than 53 percent of the league in his attempts there.
I believe the Lakers and James will utilize Kuzma’s shooting as the pop/slip man often in the upcoming season, specifically in a method the Cavaliers used Kevin Love.
This in an example of a common “horns” set Cleveland’s offense often used last season. Similar to how the Lakers used their double-drag screen, this set sandwiches the primary pick and roll ballhandler’s defender and discombobulates opposing players, especially when the screener can slip out and space it like Love.
It would not be surprising if the Lakers use this set more often with James now in tow, but it will most likely take time for Kuzma and James to build the necessary pick and roll chemistry in order to run these sets with the necessary efficiency.
Here is an example of what it could look like with Kuzma as the recipient, and readers just need to visually substitute Alex Caruso with LeBron James (as hard as that may be) in their minds as the primary ball handler:
It is important to note this projection is only valid due to Kuzma’s proven overall ability to catch and shoot.
The Lakers have been notably panned for their roster construction this summer outside of signing James, specifically for their current roster’s lack of perimeter shooting. But as I mentioned in my Josh Hart article, the team’s returning players from last season should all see some form of an efficiency uptick due to James’ overall gravity coupled with their already-existing skills.
Kuzma is no exception to this, as when he has the opportunity to hop into his shot and go up in one motion, without dribbling, he was among the league’s best last season.
On these types of attempts, Kuzma scored 1.20 points per possession (72nd percentile) an impressive feat for a player draft analysts criticized for a lack of shooting ability. One should expect James to take advantage of this next year like he did with Love’s elite shooting (92nd percentile in the same category) in his time in Cleveland.
Another area where James’ loves to find his teammates is in early scoring transition scenarios. Having the aforementioned front court spacer makes for a deadly trailing big, another instance where Kuzma can strive next to the three time champion.
The level of attention James demands as he attacks downhill in this early scoring opportunity is on full display as he draws the focus of two defenders and astutely finds the trailing Love for the open three.
Similarly, last season’s Lakers’ squad thrived in getting on the break as often as possible. While Brook Lopez served as the trailer in most of these instances, Kuzma proved to be able to adequately fill this role as well, as seen in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s initiating off the turnover here:
There is still plenty of work on and off the court for James and Kuzma to build the necessary chemistry needed for this team to overachieve their current projections, but there should be optimism.
Ultimately, the Lakers will be over the moon if Kuzma ever reaches the production level of Bosh or Love during James’ tenure in Los Angeles, but even though there lies a reasonable range of outcomes he will not hit those peaks, Kuzma has shown enough glimpses to at the very least suggest he will quickly become one of James’ favorite weapons on offense.
*Statistics and Video provided by: Synergy and NBA.com.