April 10, 2023
Our Actionable Analytics squad has been working on a system for classifying player’s offensive roles – learn more about how coaches and scouts can use this new feature to develop winning team strategies.
During his 20 seasons in the NBA, LeBron James has played with 214 different teammates – from Norris Cole to Cole Swider and from Ray Allen to Alan Henderson, teaming up with 7 different Mr. Joneses and 6 different Mr. Browns along the way. Over the years, he’s played with every type of player in every possible lineup combination.
But what type of lineup works best around LeBron?
We can use our new offensive role system to look back at the combinations of player archetypes that have worked well next to LeBron on offense (as well as some of the combinations that haven’t worked so well).
LeBron has played with each of the 11 different types of players in our offensive role system. These offensive roles are defined by how a player tries to help his team score points, either through the shots that he takes himself or the ones he sets up for his teammates with his playmaking. You can read all the nitty, gritty details about how we’re using Synergy data to define our offensive roles in a separate post but, basically, we’re sorting players based on different combinations of their play-type and shot-type rates (%TIME stats) that best describe the ways in which they try to help their teams score.
We can look at how often LeBron’s lineups featured each type of teammate and how those lineups performed on offense throughout his career.
It’s a little tricky to evaluate the effect of each type of teammate on LeBron’s lineups one at a time like this (because really you need to consider how all five players fit together) but a few themes stick out from the table above. First, the three playmaking groups – ball handlers, wings, and bigs – are each on the “red” side of the table, indicating that these types of players tend to add a scoring boost to LeBron’s lineups. Secondly, the biggest detrimental impact is made by rim-finishing bigs whose presence on the court tends to depress the offensive rating of LeBron’s lineups. Thirdly, it’s surprising to see that the shooting groups – dynamic shooting wings, spot-up shooting wings, and stretch bigs – don’t immediately jump to the top of the list (more on this later!).
Another way to sort LeBron’s lineups is by the number of teammates from each offensive grouping – organizing them by how many ball handlers, wings, and bigs were on the court.
We find a predictable pattern between the number of bigs on the floor and offensive efficiency, where more bigs mean less efficient scoring for LeBron’s lineups. The flip side is that more wings lead to more offense. These patterns aren’t specific to LeBron or his teams, we would find the same result throughout the league. Additionally, there’s an obvious tradeoff between the losses on offense and the gains on defense when you add an extra big.
Initially, my own hunch was that the best way to build around LeBron was just to surround him with shooters. But is that right? Let’s see how often LeBron has played alongside different amounts of dynamic shooting wings, spot-up shooting wings, and stretch bigs and how well those lineups have performed on offense.
Surprisingly, having more shooting wings surrounding LeBron has not tended to result in better offensive lineups (at least not in an obvious way).
LeBron has teamed up with 409 unique four-man combinations of our 11 offensive roles. These are the eight combinations with whom he was most often paired.
For example, he played 1,615 offensive possessions with one playmaking ball handler, one dynamic shooting wing, one spot-up shooting wing, and one stretch big from 2010-11 to 2021-22 (which would include a 2013-14 lineup with Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Chris Bosh).
There’s quite a bit of variety in these lineups but you can spot some tendencies. Six of the eight most common lineup combinations featured a scoring ball handler, six featured at least one stretch big, and five featured a spot-up shooting wing. Seven of the eight most common lineup combinations featured one or two ball handlers, one or two wings, and one or two bigs.
Of the 51 lineup combinations that played at least 250 offensive possessions with LeBron, these were the eight with the highest offensive ratings.
For example, lineups with one scoring ball handler, one playmaking wing, one spot-up shooting wing, and one stretch big (like Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, and Channing Frye from the 2016-17 season) have scored 1.21 points per possession.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, of those 51 lineup combinations that played at least 250 offensive possessions with LeBron, these were the eight with the *lowest* offensive ratings.
For example, lineups with one playmaking ball handler, one secondary ball handler, one stretch big, and one rim-finishing big (like the net-negative combination of Matthew Dellavedova, Dion Waiters, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson during the 2014-15 season).
If we compare the colors of the circles from the “best” offensive pairings to the colors of the circles of the “worst” ones, we see that the most productive combinations have more pink circles (12 ball handlers) and fewer yellow circles (8 bigs) whereas the least productive combinations have fewer pink circles (8 ball handlers) and more yellow circles (14 bigs). So, again, we see that an extra big has tended to hurt the offensive production of LeBron’s lineups.
So far, we’ve been focused on historical data, but now let’s check out the lineups the Lakers have put around LeBron this season. Before the trade deadline – probably because they noticed his consistent success with the configuration – the Lakers were deploying LeBron almost exclusively in lineups with one big man. Most commonly, these were of the one ball handler, two wings, and one big variety (49% of the time) but they also used LeBron and a big alongside two ball handlers and one wing (34% of the time) and occasionally with three wings (8% of the time).
Interestingly, since acquiring Jarred Vanderbilt from the Jazz at the trade deadline, the Lakers have been putting LeBron back in two-big lineups once again. And…
It’s working! Lineups with LeBron, Vanderbilt, and Anthony Davis have been +46 points so far, scoring at a healthy clip of 1.09 PPP while giving up only 1.04 PPP to opposing offenses. The Lakers won a championship by playing LeBron and Davis with a second big (LeBron spent 43% of the time during the 2019-20 regular season with Davis plus either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard), so they know their stars can make that arrangement work (even if it bucks the trends found in LeBron’s historical lineup data).
Still, if we take a closer look at the best-vs.-worst combinations to pair with LeBron on offense, I think there’s another secret formula to be uncovered there.
We’ve seen already that the recipe for success isn’t necessarily to just take one part LeBron and add four parts shooting. Some amount of additional playmaking is required to really make the batter come together. And, digging through the best and worst lineups, there’s a combination of player-type ingredients that is found in 7 of the 8 most high-powered lineups and only 1 of the 8 lowest-scoring offenses. For the perfect mix, take two parts playmaking (ie., any two of a playmaking ball handler, a playmaking wing, a scoring ball handler or a secondary ball handler), add a dash of shooting (either a dynamic shooting wing or a spot-up shooting wing), and finish with a big guy (any of the four types of bigs).
From the 2010-11 season through last season, LeBron spent 17% of his offensive possessions in one of those lineups, scoring at a rate of 1.06 PPP (vs. 1.01 PPP in all his other lineups). Earlier this season, before the trade deadline, LeBron was spending even more time with his ideal teammate types (31% of the time) and outscoring his opponents by 67 points during those minutes. Since the trade deadline, those types of lineups are still working really well (+21 points) but he’s had fewer opportunities to play in that configuration (14% of the time). The good news is that the Lakers still have plenty of ways to mix and match personnel around LeBron. A lineup that pairs LeBron and Davis with two of Dennis Schroder, Austin Reaves, or D’Angelo Russell plus either Malik Beasley or Troy Brown Jr. would satisfy my criteria for an optimal offensive unit. Obviously, the question remains whether this lineup would survive on defense but so far this season, those combinations have been holding their own quite nicely. We’ll talk more about how we can incorporate the defensive side of the ball in evaluating lineup fit in future blog posts, so check back here soon!
In addition to being a useful lens through which we can view team building and rotation optimization tasks, we’re hoping our new offensive role descriptions will help coaches prepare for and game plan against their opponents. We also think our offensive roles will help scouts to better understand the contexts in which prospects and recruits have played their basketball in the past and to imagine how those prospects and recruits might play differently in a new context. Let us know how you’re using offensive roles or if there’s anything you think needs to be fixed!
Todd is building tools to help coaches, scouts, and players find winning team strategies as part of Synergy’s Analytics and Insights Team. He creates inviting infographics, engaging charts and interactive displays that make data compelling and accessible. Follow him on Twitter @crumpledjumper