The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.
Two years ago, the Denver Nuggets had the worst defense in the league, in part because they forced the fewest number of turnovers. So far, with Mike Malone’s aggressive scheme on full tilt, they rank fourth in points allowed per possession and forced turnover rate, per Cleaning the Glass. When trying to stop a pick-and-roll, Denver will bring the screener’s man high to either trap the ball or cut off penetration. It’s a volatile strategy that requires them to swing for the fences on just about every possession while letting smart offenses feast on corner threes and shots at the rim.
Last week, this confrontational style collided with LeBron James, the league’s most perceptive passer. James finished with 11 assists and spent a majority of the game one step ahead of his opponent, shifting defenders with his eyes and firing bullet passes that required that extra zip to reach their destination before Denver could respond. The Nuggets lost by seven.
But after a few plays where Denver used three men to defend LeBron in the pick-and-roll, L.A. switched things up in a clever way. In the play seen below, what initially looks like a Svi Mykhailiuk-JaVale McGee pick-and-roll quickly transforms into LeBron on the right wing, with McGee’s roll sucking in help defenders from the weak side and Nikola Jokic essentially guarding Mykhailiuk for no reason.
The Lakers short the pick-and-roll, meaning they anticipate the defense’s aggression and intentionally move it to a third teammate who can then attack the rotating defense from a different angle. There’s nothing unusual about that, but when executed this far from the rim it shows just how powerful and anticipatory James can be. There’s really nobody like him.
When a similar action took place in the third quarter, Denver still couldn’t stop LeBron’s pass even though the action didn’t really fool them.
The Lakers spend more time in transition than any other team. They run off everything and have a ton of success in the open floor. But sequences like this are a nice reminder of all the different ways LeBron can attack whatever defense stands in his way. Despite their limitations and general inexperience, L.A.’s offense ranks just outside the top ten when operating in the half-court.