As the Lakers look to fine-tune their offense this season, a fair amount of experimenting will go on with regards to lineups, rotations and on-court X’s and O’s. In years past, head coach Frank Vogel and LeBron James have used the regular season to get as large of a sample size as possible for various looks before heading into the games that matter in the postseason.
At the same time, no matter how much the Lakers experiment with or shift their offensive approach, there are certain mainstays within a LeBron James offense that will carry over from year to year. One of the most common is his late-game matchup hunting, typically resulting in ball-screen actions with the point guard to either get a smaller defender onto him, or force the defense to double, creating a mismatch for his teammates.
In previous years with the Lakers, those screens have been conducted by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and occasionally the likes of Dennis Schröder, Avery Bradley or Danny Green. This season’s team presented a more interesting challenge, though.
Simply put, Russell Westbrook is not someone who sets ball screens. The reasons why are obvious: He’s usually the one coming off ball screens, not setting them. But as Zach Lowe of ESPN noted during the preseason, Westbrook has never set more than 68 ball screens in a season — less than one per game — and set less than 20 total last season. It raised an interesting question of which player would potentially need to adapt, whether James with his late-game matchup hunting and use of guard screens, or Westbrook showing more of a willingness to set those ball screens.
For those reasons, it came as a bit of a surprise when the Lakers went to that action late on Sunday in their win over the Grizzlies, just the team’s third game of the season. It was clearly a (very) dry run as the Lakers look to build chemistry and familiarity with those sets, but it was a glimpse into what could be a devastating part of their late-game offense.
“We haven’t put in most of our playbook yet,” James told reporters afterward. “We have a new team. So we still are implementing ways that we can get better offensively, and that’s one we haven’t even exploited just yet. We just put it in tonight.
“A lot of teams are not going to switch point guards onto me, and I’m able to get Russ in a 3-on-2. And his ability to lead the game from that position (makes him) one of the elite playmakers in our game. And you see what he was able to do,” James continued. “That’s something that’s going to work very well for our ball club.”
Let’s take a look at those late-game possessions to see what the Lakers showed, both good and bad.
The first look at Westbrook as a ball screener came in a double screen action alongside Anthony Davis. James comes off Davis’ screen but hits an open Westbrook. The lack of familiarity in the situation is apparent here as Westbrook hesitates on how to attack Adams, who is sagging off heavily. Eventually, he forces up a bad mid-range jumper.
The second go at it, though, is where everything clicked into place for the only time that night. James and Westbrook get the timing right on the ball screen, which releases Westbrook into a 4-on-3 scenario. He attacks the rim to force the help and lays it off to a cutting Davis for the uncontested dunk. It was the potential of this group put into action, the pros of combining such talents put on full, glorious display.
The rest of their usage of the set went less well, but still showed promise despite middling results.
The next time down the court, we see how this action can have ripple effects to create open looks for others. After Westbrook’s screen, Adams — who was put in a lot of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moments late — helps off Davis to prevent the roll. James, one of the best skip passers in league history, notices and fires a pass to Davis for an open 3-pointer that misses.
The last time the Lakers ran it, they nearly got it right once more. Morant cheated off Westbrook’s screen this time, and James rejected the pick as a result, forcing Morant to scramble and leaving Westbrook wide open. Adams again helps over and Davis again cuts to the rim.
James, though, never stopped cutting himself and the result is both players in the same spot and, subsequently, a turnover after the ball is tipped loose on the floor.
If anything, though, that final play shows the need for the Lakers to get these reps in during the regular season to perfect the timing and movement on the court. After the game, Vogel noted that he and his coaching staff had talked about using Westbrook as a ball screener, and liked what they saw in their first extended look.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot in our meetings and trying to incorporate it into practice,” Vogel said. “I think late-game, that’s something that we like when they have a lead guard that’s not going to switch on LeBron. When you get that situation, we got that one bucket, we also had that miscue where we were double cutting and just turned it over in the paint. But it’s definitely a situation we like.”
Then, the Lakers have Westbrook attacking a defense 4-on-3 or 3-on-2, with two defenders occupied by James. As James noted, there are few in the league that could be more lethal in that situation than Westbrook and that’s not even taking into account one of his teammates in those situations will almost always be Davis.
When the Lakers preach patience, it’s for situations like this. While they clearly showed what could be, they also showed that they have some kinks that still need to be ironed out. Only three games into the season, the Lakers have plenty of time to do so. Because ultimately, this is not just a way for the Lakers to find baskets late in the game. It’s also a way to put Westbrook into more comfortable situations as he looks to adapt to his new role within the purple and gold. And even though more mistakes may still come, the Lakers showed a glimpse of how lethal the trio of James, Davis and Westbrook could be on Sunday.