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Nicholas Kastner

LeBron James Controls the Chessboard

The world's best player breaks down the NBA's most highly evolved offense

This won’t surprise you: The Miami Heat have one of the best offenses in the NBA. But as entertaining as it is to watch the two-time defending NBA champions execute, it’s been equally fascinating to watch them evolve. The Heat’s approach to scoring has changed drastically over the past few years. Just ask LeBron James.

“No one cares who shoots,” James told me. “We went from a team that played a lot of isolation basketball to [being] first or second in the league in assists. Everyone on the team feels so comfortable offensively. We get the ball from one side to the other side, shifting the defense then attacking it or spraying out for 3s.”

Scoring in the NBA is by no means easy. But when James is on the floor, Miami sure makes it look that way. The Heat are currently averaging an insane 111.9 points per 100 possessions with James on the floor.1 It’s convenient to suggest that Miami’s proficient scoring is merely a byproduct of its talent, but that overlooks a remarkable transformation in the team’s philosophy and system. Yes, Miami has several gifted players, but as we saw last season in Los Angeles, talent alone guarantees nothing in the NBA. Teamwork and intelligent schemes are still required. Getting players to collectively generate value rather than just contribute as individuals is still the hallmark of winning basketball; it’s also the hallmark of the current Heat offense.

In November, I visited Miami to talk about the team’s offense with James. As always, he is constantly thinking a few moves ahead and meditating on progress. At 28 he is squarely in his prime but remains obsessed with improvement, both as an individual player and as a member of a team. Of all the things to appreciate about the four-time MVP, one aspect has still gone relatively uncelebrated: The best individual player in the world is also one of the most thoughtful teammates another basketball player could have.

“Our offense has grown over the years,” James said. “We’ve all had to make sacrifices for our offense to become better. But as far as where we are today, I feel great. We’re at a record pace, assists are high, efficiency is high, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, we’re doing it all. So I’m feeling really good. But I’m always thinking about ways to improve.”

James discussed the key elements of the team’s offense in a folding chair at the edge of the Heat locker room on a quiet off day after a breezy home win against Milwaukee; it was the team’s first victory on what would become a nine-game win streak. As one of the team’s leaders, he has helped to engineer and implement the tactics that are now dominating the league. It didn’t happen overnight, but the offense has steadily improved and its diverse collection of talent has gradually coalesced. This is a very different team from the one that lost to Dallas in the Finals two and a half years ago.

I wanted to look at this offense through James’s eyes, analyzing each of his key teammates and talk about how these individual parts add up to a terrifying whole.

Chris Bosh: The Disrupter

In 2010-11, the season in which Miami last lost a playoff series, the Heat ranked 25th in the NBA in assist percentage. By last season, they ranked 13th. And so far this season, they’re ranked second, assisting on 64 percent of their field goals.

Chris Bosh is one of the most frequent recipients of those assists,2 and according to James he is also the catalyst for many of the team’s key offensive actions. “Our offense is predicated through CB playing a lot of the high-post and 18-foot areas, knowing that he’s going to be played by a lot of 5s,” said James. “The centers in our league are always trying to protect the rim, and CB is always like our outlet on offense.”

Bosh gets a lot of open shots when defenders cheat off of him to double an attacker and that attacker gets the ball to Bosh in his sweet spot.

Bosh Chart

Bosh, who would be the primary scorer on many other NBA teams, has become one of the most efficient jump-shooting big men in the league. He made a ridiculous 53 percent of his shots from those areas between 16 and 24 feet last season (as a whole, the league shoots 38 percent there), a level of efficiency that demands defensive attention and forces opposing big men to rove far from the basket. In Miami, Bosh’s role as a scorer is secondary to his ability to set obstructive screens and disrupt the effectiveness of the opposition’s interior defense.

“It becomes a matchup problem,” James said. “Anytime you can bring one of the best defenders out of the paint — you know, like Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, or any of these guys like Marc Gasol that protect the paint so well — that allows driving lanes for myself and D-Wade to come much easier.”

Space has become one of the core concepts as the team has migrated away from the isolation-heavy schemes that characterized the unsuccessful first year of the Big Three era. According to head coach Erik Spoelstra, “We learned a lot from the pain of the Dallas Finals loss. One of the things that was clear was that it would be essential for us to utilize more movement, especially off the ball, and in general to move the ball more. Less self-will plays, less isolation, less dribbling, less holding. We coined it ‘pace and space.'”

This pace-and-space approach forced the team’s primary scorers to change their approaches. Along with James, another player who was asked to change his game was Dwyane Wade, who morphed from one of the most effective isolation players in the league to one of the game’s best cutters.

Dwyane Wade: The Cutter

“We figured out ways through the years to play without the ball. D-Wade makes great cuts into the lane,” said James. “It definitely helps our team get paint points. Paint points are the easiest shots. The game has evolved over the years with the long ball, and you have to have that in your game because it definitely helps a lot, but paint points are still the easiest shots. We run a lot of spread offense, we run a lot of pick-and-rolls, but we do have paint guys, guys who get into the paint and score, guys like myself and D-Wade, who shoots 65 percent in the paint — that’s huge for us.”

This season, you can see the maturation of James and Wade’s basketball relationship. There have been countless eye-popping highlights, but one play from this season in particular sticks out in James’s mind. It was late in the second quarter of an early-season home game against the Wizards.

In the box score it looks like just another Dwyane Wade field goal and LeBron James assist. But there’s much more to it than that. There’s the underlying architecture; there’s the way James visualized Wade’s slip to the rim before it happened; there’s the ruthless quickness and energy of the cut itself; there’s the impeccable delivery of the pass, hitting Wade in perfect stride. This play not only demonstrates Wade’s incredible cutting abilities — it provides a glimpse into the playmaking mind of James and his keen ability to envision basketball plays before they happen. This kind of action is far more common now than it was three years ago.

Wade

Rumors of Wade’s demise as a scoring force have been greatly exaggerated. He’s never been an elite jump shooter, but that’s not his game — he’s one of the league’s premier “attack guards” or “power guards.” Last season, he led all guards in scoring efficiency in the NBA’s most important real estate, making 65 percent of his 549 shots near the basket.3

Wade’s impressive interior production is the result of plentiful transition chances and the open spaces generated by Miami’s improved half-court schemes. The scoring area in the NBA is about 1,300 square feet. In other words, the tactical zone in which NBA offenses operate is about the same size as a spacious three-bedroom condo on Biscayne Boulevard. Like the league’s other great offenses, Miami forces opponents to defend every nook and cranny of that space, diluting the defense and attacking the middle of the floor with frequent pick-and-rolls. It’s not uncommon for Miami to stash shooters in the corners and dare defenders to collapse in to protect the hoop from Wade or James.

“Our offense is predicated on space,” James said. “We have our shooters out there spacing the floor with Shane, Ray, Rio, and James Jones — we have some snipers on our team. They come in and spread the floor and just knock down shots if you’re not paying attention to them.”

As a possession unfolds, the offense collectively reads and reacts like a prizefighter waiting for one little opening or one tiny mistake. The Heat have the best corner men in the game. They use Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and James Jones like rooks on a chessboard. At times it may seem like the shooters are standing idle. In actuality they’re acting as spatial anchors, forcing the defense to mind the entire width of the offensive area and providing even more freedom for the Hall of Fame attackers to operate inside the arc.

Shane Battier and Ray Allen: The Rocket Launchers

Nobody made more corner 3s last season than Shane Battier. He made 48 percent of his shots in the right corner and 44 percent in the left, marks much greater than the league averages. Battier has never been a terribly versatile offensive threat, but the way he’s used in the Heat offense demands defensive attention.

Shane Battier

And if Battier is on a cold streak, the Heat can always turn to the best 3-point shooter in NBA history. Ray Allen, despite being at the end of his career, continues to be a difference-maker — just ask the Spurs. James loves having Allen on his side and is constantly looking for a chance to get him an open look.

Allen

“When I’m in attack mode, I get a lot of eyes and I know that,” James said. “I attract a lot of attention. For some odd reason teams seem to forget that Ray Allen is the best shooter ever created, and so they pay attention to me and all I need is a split second — and all he needs is a split second; he gets the ball off faster than [anyone] I’ve ever seen — and once I can see a defender’s eyes pay attention to me and come off Ray, I’m going to him.”

For the Heat, it’s a very basic basketball play, but it’s simply unstoppable.

Those shooters are a major reason why Miami’s roster is full of made men with two rings. James calls them “rocket launchers.” Over the past few seasons as the team has meshed, the on-court synthesis between perimeter threats and paint attackers has become downright unfair. If you watch the Heat, you can see a perpetual awareness — particularly in James — of exactly where those shooters will be.

That awareness wasn’t there a few years ago when James first moved to South Beach. But the arrivals of Battier and Allen made the team smarter and further justified Spoelstra’s pace-and-space philosophy. The result is the best offense that James has ever been a part of. Not only is it much more efficient than that first year of the Big Three era, it’s also far more advanced than Mike Brown’s clunky Cleveland schemes. The new offense keeps every offensive player involved and ensures that each player is weaponized. Everyone gets touches, everyone feels more invested, and now Miami has the best “inside-outside” sequences in the league. The Heat are currently making a ridiculous 41 percent of their 3-point attempts, good for fourth-best in the NBA.

LeBron James: The Kasparov

There are very few scoring forces more frightening than Ray Allen’s long-range jumper. LeBron James attacking the basket in single coverage is definitely one of them. When he talks about that “odd reason” defenders forget about Allen, he only needs to look in the mirror. You don’t leave Jesus Shuttlesworth alone in the corner for just anyone.

James is the team’s leading scorer. Last season, he became a very good 3-point shooter, making more than 40 percent of his attempts. In 2011-12, he added a post game. Still, as a scoring threat, he remains most effective attacking the basket, getting dunks in transition, drawing fouls on dribble drives, or catching and finishing alley-oops. Perhaps no stat reveals James’s overall domination more than this one: He led the league in both scoring and efficiency near the rim last season.

LeBron James

And yet … he is a playmaker at heart. James’s willingness to think ahead and facilitate for his teammates is what sets him apart from his fellow NBA megastars. Spoelstra credits the Heat’s team-first culture to James: “Your team naturally takes on the personality traits of your best player. We are very fortunate that LeBron is such an unselfish and giving player for someone so talented. Same for Dwyane and Chris. It makes it much easier for everyone else to buy into team basketball.”

On the court, James knows he can beat almost any individual defender in the league. So as he attacks, he often focuses on the eyes of help defenders, allowing their behavior to key what happens next. If they collapse, he kicks; if they don’t, he attacks. But James sees the play unfold in his mind before he makes it on the court.

“For me, the one-on-one guy I believe I can get around every time,” James said. “But it’s always the second or third guy that I’m paying attention to, and I’m seeing plays before they happen.”

Is he clairvoyant? Well, that would help explain some things. But what’s more likely is that he is a studious player who has seen so much help defense, and so much collapsing, that he now knows not only what’s going to happen before it goes down, but also precisely what to do about it. Ten years into his NBA career, he is now able to convert that information into the perfect basketball play.

It’s a cliché to say that LeBron James makes the players around him better. But that is exactly what is happening. If you placed any member of the Heat on another team, his efficiency would likely suffer. James is a rising tide that lifts all the boats on Miami’s roster. The combination of his poise, vision, athleticism, and basketball IQ enables him to survey the court as if it were a chessboard. It’s this ability that separates him from “pure scorers” like Carmelo Anthony. He is more Kasparov than Kobe. Even the people closest to him see him as a chess player: “All my family members have been saying, ‘Listen, you need to learn how to play chess, because that will be your game.'” But James already has a game, and he is already its grand master.

Filed Under: Lebron James, NBA, People, Sports

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry

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