I am a Witness... To LeBron in the High/Low Post
Quite an entertaining early-season matchup as LeBron James and the Cavs played Chris Paul and the Hornets in New Orleans on Saturday night. I was surprised that I had to catch a game featuring the two best players in the world on League Pass. No matter what the size of the two markets is, I figured that each LBJ-CP3 matchup was worthy of some national run, especially given that there are only two per season. (You might have Kobe in the top two instead of LeBron or CP3 and that's fine, I can dig it, but my point is the same.)
But I digress. Given that New Orleans won the ballgame 104-92 without Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic, and that Chris Paul (24 pts, 15 asts) outplayed LeBron (15-7-13) overall, it might be surprising for me to say that I was downright excited by what I saw with the Cavs' offense, but that is indeed the case.
What was exciting for me was to see how LeBron James was being deployed. The stagnant 1-4 sets with LBJ pounding the ball into the ground 30 feet away from the basket were much less prevalent, mainly utilized at the end of quarters.
Instead, what the Cavs showed on Saturday was an offense full of motion, with LeBron in the high post, in the low post, catching the ball on the move coming across the lane on cross screens or coming off of down screens.
Cleveland often initiated its offense with a variation of the "UCLA" double high-post set that has been a Jerry Sloan favorite in Utah. Here's a basic look at how this offense is aligned (from Hoop Tactics), though the Cavs had the 2 and 3 men a little deeper in the corner (just showing this for the initial alignment - disregard the action shown here):
There are innumerable variations to the UCLA offensive set. The Malone-Stockton-era Jazz used this set as a starting point for all kinds of options, including these examples:
-- there is the classic "UCLA cut", in which the point guard passes to the wing and cuts to the basket, using a high post player as a screen;
-- they would enter the ball to the wing, either by dribble or pass, to set up their mainstay side pick-and-roll;
-- they would enter the ball to Malone at the high post and give him room to drive or shoot a 17-footer, while running a variety of cutters to take advantage of his passing ability.
LeBron was sometimes lined up on the wing, and sometimes he set up in the 4 position above, on the left elbow with his back to the basket. When he was at the 4, he had a lot of the same advantages that the Mailman had, as described above, and I think it's a fantastic idea.
The Cavs often opted to pass the ball into LeBron at the 4 position (left elbow) and then have Varejao come over from the 5 position and run a pick and roll.
Cleveland used this 4-5 screen to particularly strong effect at the end of the first quarter, as they ran it repeatedly. Here's a rundown of their sequence of possessions:
2:48 1st Q, 16-13 Cavs
With a combination of a double-team and a rotation after the screen, LeBron finds Wally, who misses a drive, but LeBron comes flying in for the offensive rebound, and then swings around to Wally, who finds Delonte West for a 3. 19-13 Cavs
2:11 1st Q, 19-15 Cavs
Classic pick-and-roll, with LeBron finding Varejao for an easy layup. 21-15 Cavs
1:40 1st Q, 21-17 Cavs
Varejao slips the screen and receives a gorgeous behind-the-back assist from LeBron, which can be seen at the :09 mark in the highlight reel on NBA.com. 23-17 Cavs
1:17 1st Q, 23-17 Cavs
LeBron comes off the screen and knocks down a 16-foot jumper (much easier than the 22-foot fadeaways we've seen so much in the past). 25-17 Cavs
0:48 1st Q, 25-19 Cavs
LeBron tries another 17-footer off the screen and misses badly, but comes right in for the rebound and an easy putback. It sure seems like the fact that a) he's setting up closer to the basket and b) his momentum is taking him toward the basket, rather than fading away, is leaving LBJ in much better position to hit the O-boards. 27-19 Cavs
0:12 1st Q, 27-19 Cavs
The Cavs run the old 1-4 set with LeBron isolated on top to close the quarter. He dribbles, dribbles, dribbles, and ends up with a 22-footer under duress. Clank. 27-19 Cavs
Certainly, Cleveland still needs to work out the kinks, but its new offensive approach seems to be very promising, esp. when employing a lineup with LeBron at the 4, and/or operating out of the high post on the left side.
The Cavs' UCLA sets seemed less effective with LeBron on the wing, mainly b/c it seemed like Cleveland got away from putting the ball in his hands.
When they did get LeBron the ball on the move near the lane, off of cross screens or down screens, it was often very effective. In these instances, he would often draw two defenders immediately, setting up an easy assist. (Check the 1:03 mark of the NBA.com video package linked above for an example.) It was interesting that the Cavs' new alignments seemed to set up James as a playmaker more so than as a scorer, as his stats (15 pts, 13 asts) bore out.
We'd also note that LeBron displayed a nascent low-post game a little bit - he hit a nifty left hook from the left low block at one point. As we've noted before, we think that LeBron could be absolutely devastating in the low post if he develops his game down there.
All in all, the Cavs simply seem to be putting LeBron in positions where he is much more difficult to guard - moving his game from out near the three-point line (his three attempts are down from 4.8/game to 3.0 through 3 games) to the mid-range.
Blogger Brian McCormick explained the advantages of LeBron in the high post in a post just after the Olympics in August:
- Whenever I discuss James with a coach, we agree that we do not understand wasting his talent 25-feet from the basket. James is an exceptional passer. He is strong and fast. He is not, however, a great three-point shooter and he dribbles too much.
Playing James as the PF does not mean taking the ball out of his hands. The Kings ran their offense through Vlade Divac and Chris Webber and each exhibited his passing acumen. Imagine James at the high post. If he penetrates, there is no way for the weak side defender to get from outside the lane to a position where he can take a charge. So, the defender either has to cheat, meaning James can show off his passing skills, or challenge James as he jumps to dunk. I seriously do not know how anyone would defend the Cavs if they ran their offense through James at the high post. Teams would have to play zone and take their chances with James passing to his teammates on the perimeter.
When the Cavs give James the ball at half court and stand and watch him try to break down the other team, they make it easier for their opponents. They make James easier to guard. Honestly, James would get 35 and 8 if he played the game within 18-feet of the basket, rather than dribbling away half the shot clock 30-feet from the basket.
Also check out Brian's animated play diagrams showing how the Cavs are using LeBron when he's set up as the 3 man on the wing, from his observations of Cleveland in the preseason.
Oh by the way, before we go, let's tip our cap to CP3, whose court vision and generalship were superb as always, and James Posey, who knocked down clutch shots and made arguably the key play of the game, a strip steal of LeBron leading to a breakaway that put New Orleans up 88-83, breaking open a tight game for good.
Ah, the league is back, and I am happy.