It wasn’t until the playoffs last season that the Cavaliers really started to experiment with small-ball lineups. According to Basketball Reference, LeBron James only logged 23 percent of his regular-season minutes at power forward compared to 40 percent in the playoffs. Seeing as some of the Cavs'best lineups came with James at the four — Cleveland’s most used small-ball lineup outscored teams by 36.1 points per 100 possessions in the postseason — it comes as no surprise that they saved it until they needed it most.
This regular season has been a different story: James set a career-high in a Cavaliers uniform by spending over a third of his minutes at power forward. Tyronn Lue even tried something new by moving James to the center position, which we haven’t seen much of since he was a member of the Heat. It only made up for three percent of his minutes in total, but teams didn’t have an answer for the Cavaliers when James took Tristan Thompson’s spot in the lineup.
One of those super small lineups in particular has been terrifyingly good. In their 22 minutes on the court this season, Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and James averaged 132.9 points per 100 possessions while giving up only 95.8 points per 100 possessions on the other end of the court. Of lineups that played at least 20 minutes together, only two scored at a higher rate while also giving up over 120 points per 100 possessions. Although it works best as a situational lineup — the Cavaliers broke it out when Frank Kaminsky (Hornets) and Kelly Olynyk (Celtics) were the opposing centers — it’s one that helped them rattle off huge runs in the three games in which it was used.
The reason it’s unstoppable is because James takes on the role of a point center with four knockdown shooters surrounding him. As you can see in the table below, two of them (Korver and Williams) are some of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA while the other two (Shumpert and Jefferson) are above average3-point shooters. On top of that, Williams is a provenpick-and-roll playerand Jefferson is an excellent cutter. That gives opposing teams no easy out when trying to matchup up with them on defense.
To no surprise, the lineup is at its best when James has the ball in his hands at the top of the key or around the elbow while everyone else keeps the defense engaged. The player guarding James obviously can’t back offhim, so there’s usually a huge opening in the middle of the paint for the Cavaliers to work with. James cantake advantage of that space himself by putting the ball on the floor and finishing strong at the rim.
Other times James will act as a quarterback by facing up to the basket while Jefferson fakes a screen and cuts backdoor...
... or receives a screen from Williams, Shumpert or Korver.
Simply involving two shooters in off-ball screens has a way of creating wide open layups. Just watch how easily the Hornets lose Korver on thispossession:
And how easily the Celtics lose Jefferson on this possession:
It’s James at his best. By putting him in positions where he can use the threat of his scoring to open up plays for others, that lineup assisted on 81.3 percent of its made shots. To put into perspective how ridiculous that is, the Warriors lead the NBA this season with 21.4 percent of their possessions ending in an assist. Small sample size or not, it’s a terrifying number considering those looks helped them post a true shooting percentage of 73.9 percent. There's not much the defense can do to counter it, either, based on the way theyare forced to cross-match.
There’s obviously more to the lineup’s dominance than crisp passing from James. For example, 11.2 percent of his offense this season has come in the post, and he ranks in the 70.3 percentile with 0.94 points per possession. With the amount of space around him, it’s easy for James to bulldoze his way to the basket and score over much smaller defenders when he’s in transition or ahalf-court set. As soon as the defense throws a second defender at him, James can kick it out to one of four 3-point shooters.
James can also be used as the ball handler and roll man in the pick-and-roll. He ranks in the 84.6 percentile with 0.97 points per possession as the ball handler and ranks in the 97.1 percentile with 1.47 points per possession as the roll man this season. We saw the Cavaliers use a similar James-at-center lineup in a game against the Wizards featuring J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving inplace of Shumpert and Jefferson. They struggled to hold their own defensively, but good things happened offensively when they put James in the pick-and-roll.
The part about the defense is the biggest reason why playing James at center can’t be used all the time. It’s not that James is the problem. It’s that the Cavaliers don’t have enough wing depth to shut teams down. James can cover up a lot of their issues when he is fully engaged,but it puts a lot of pressure on him to carry the team on both ends. For now, it’s best used against second units when they can overwhelm weaker lineups with their athleticism and versatility.
Maybe someday soon that’ll change.