January 20, 2022
Synergy NBA Heat Check
The halfway point of the NBA season is behind us, and while the teams at the very top of the standings are remaining steady, surges from the Mavericks, Grizzlies and 76ers have shaken up the efficiency landscape to begin 2022. With just a couple games separating 7th and 11th, there’s a log jam in the Eastern Conference that should produce an interesting race for the final two playoff spots. Teams like the Hornets and Wizards can separate themselves by improving on the defensive end, while the Knicks, Raptors and Celtics will need to jumpstart their offenses if they want to secure a bid to the postseason. There are plenty of stories to monitor at the individual level as well with the All-Star Game right around the corner, award races heating up and the trade deadline approaching fast.
LeBron James the…Center?
In the 2004-05 NBA season, a 20-year-old LeBron James averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on 47/35/75 shooting splits. In the 2021-22 NBA season, a 37-year-old LeBron James is averaging 28.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 52/36/76 shooting splits. LeBron first cracked the top five in offensive efficiency for high-volume players in 2005-06, when he finished with 1.03 points per possession, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Michael Redd and Elton Brand. 16 years later, his 1.10 points per possession is good for second in the league behind Kevin Durant.
That unprecedented longevity and consistency is perhaps the most impressive element of the King’s decorated career on paper, but in season 19, the ageless wonder has brought out yet another unexpected trick, this time by way of the position he plays. James has always been somewhat of a positional anomaly, a player who can attack in multiple ways offensively and can defend 1-through-4 at a high level. This year, however, we are all witnesses to something new. What started out as an intriguing experiment by Frank Vogel has suddenly become a nightly reality: LeBron James can play center.
The chart above tracks the percent of LeBron’s minutes he has played at center by game this season, defined as minutes he plays without Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard on the floor. Since Davis suffered a knee injury on December 17th, LeBron has spent the vast majority of his playing time at the 5 including several games where every minute he was on the floor came at center. While as a whole the Lakers’ offense has struggled for much of the year, the LeBron-at-center lineups have been quite effective.
Overall, the Lakers offense scores just 0.98 points per possession, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. But with LeBron at the five, the Lakers score 1.06 points per possession, a mark that would lead the NBA this season. These lineups have accounted for 65.9 points per game since Davis’ injury.
No surprise, the catalyst of these units has been James himself, who has been absolutely dominant when playing the five. Since Davis’ injury, LeBron is scoring 1.20 points per possession, which would comfortably lead the league for the entire season among the 38 players who average at least 20 possessions per game. His effective field goal percentage of 60% would rank second in that same group. Over his last 15 games, James is averaging 31.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
Center LeBron has been as versatile as any other version we’ve seen, scoring efficiently in a variety of ways. With space to operate on the low block, he’s scored 1.28 points per possession on post-ups, a number that would rank first among all players with at least 75 post-ups this season. He also often serves as the main screen-setter when sliding to the center position, scoring 1.39 points per possession as a roll man. He’s shooting 46.2% from three on pick and pops.
LeBron isn’t the only Laker benefiting from his transition to the center position. After Davis went down, Malik Monk was inserted into the starting lineup, a move that has unlocked the fifth-year guard out of Kentucky. Since December 17th, Monk is averaging 18.2 points per game on incredible 52/48/91 shooting splits. In lineups with LeBron at the five, Monk has been scoring 1.27 points per possession on a scorching 67% effective field goal percentage. With the floor spaced and LeBron spending more time off the ball or in the low post, Monk has even thrived creating on the perimeter, scoring 1.06 points per possession as the ball handler in the pick and roll. He has also frequently been used as a screen setter for LeBron, scoring an absurd 1.83 points per possession on pick and pops benefitting from the King’s gravity in a variety of ways.
In four years in Charlotte, Monk started just one game in total. Now he finds himself as the Lakers’ number 2 scoring threat alongside James, and his role will only expand if he continues to play at such a high level.
Malik Monk going to work 😤 pic.twitter.com/rNRqQ2uDWC
— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 18, 2022
Of course, Anthony Davis’ eventual return will likely cloud the LeBron-at-center fun. But these combinations have been effective enough to ensure LeBron will continue to see minutes at the 5. The Lakers, currently sitting at 7th in the West with a 22-22 record, certainly have their share of problems at this point in the season. But that list does not include James, who’s somehow still transforming his game and finding new ways to amaze us nearly two decades after he entered the league.
The Grizzlies Have Already Arrived:
When Ja Morant and the Grizzlies went into Golden State and beat Steph Curry and the Warriors in last year’s play-in tournament to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, it marked the official arrival of an exciting new era in Memphis. Even though they lost the ensuing series with the Utah Jazz in 5 games, the future looked unquestionably bright, spearheaded by a bona fide superstar in Morant, a promising young core around him and a blossoming head coach in Taylor Jenkins.
Even with all that momentum, the most optimistic projections of the Grizzlies heading into the 2021-22 season have fallen well short of just how ahead of schedule the team has looked. More than halfway through the season, Memphis sits at third in the Western Conference standings with a record of 31-15, fueled by a stunning 22-5 run over their last 27 games. They’re outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per game during this hot stretch, and that’s been against a schedule that’s been far from a cakewalk. Since December 27th, the Grizzlies have beaten the Suns, Warriors, Lakers (2x), Nets, Cavaliers, Clippers and Bulls, often in convincing fashion. The Grizzlies’ performance so far this season has propelled them into conversations many thought they were years away from. It’s already time to start thinking about the Grizzlies as real contenders in the West.
The Grizzlies play is so remarkable when you consider just how much of the heavy lifting is being done by their young talent. Their three most essential contributors, Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr. are all 23 or younger. 64.4% of the team’s usage tracked by Synergy has come from players aged 23 or younger, the third highest such percentage in the league. Unsurprisingly, the two teams ahead of them, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic, are in the early stages of rebuilding their rosters and are on the other end of the standings.
The Grizzlies success is the result of a well-balanced roster that works together on both sides of the ball. Morant is a sensational talent who has taken a leap in year three, elevating into one of the league’s premier offensive engines. His explosive athleticism and tremendous finishing ability have produced a dominance at the rim rarely seen by a 6’3” guard. But it’s the supporting cast around Morant who lift Memphis into the league’s upper echelon, a blend of players with complementary skill sets and a youthful energy akin to the old “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies.
No player from that group has been more impressive than second-year guard Desmond Bane. This season, the TCU product is averaging 17.7 points per game while shooting 47% from the field, 42% from three and 87% from the line. Bane’s efficiency has been truly elite, with his 1.08 points per possession ranking 5th out of the 35 players with at least 730 possessions this season, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Zach LaVine. Morant’s attack-first tendency is balanced by Bane’s exceptional outside shooting – he’s produced an impressive 1.2 points per possession out of spot up situations. Among backcourt duos, Morant and Bane are third in points per game and 8th in combined efficiency, scoring 1.02 points per possession.
Desmond Bane and Ja Morant combined for 50 PTS in the @memgrizz WIN! #GrindCity@DBane0625: 25 PTS, 4 AST @JaMorant: 25 PTS, 4 REB pic.twitter.com/a9JdWj0EHl
— NBA (@NBA) January 18, 2022
While Morant and Bane have fueled a much-improved offense, the true spark of their climb to the top has been the Grizzlies’ defense. Over the last 27 games, Memphis has boasted the best defense in the league, allowing just 0.91 points per possession and holding teams to 42.7% from the field. The leader of these efforts is Jackson Jr., who has improved drastically on that end of the floor in his fourth year out of Michigan State. In this hot stretch, Jackson Jr. is holding opposing players to just 0.89 points per possession when he is the primary defender. His prolific rim protection has resulted in the Grizzlies giving up just 1.10 points per possession around the basket, which ranks second in the NBA. While Jackson Jr. anchors the paint, standout perimeter defenders like Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones complete a defense that projects to remain in the top 10 as the season rolls on.
Jaren Jackson Jr. jumps over Ja for his 4th swat of the game!
Watch the @memgrizz live on TNT! pic.twitter.com/VjJItRaLsK
— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2022
Unlike most of the top tier teams, Memphis will likely have only one All-Star in Morant, further evidence that their elite performance is a result of the collective unit. And the unique youth of that unit suggests that the Grizzlies are probably just getting started.
Sam is a member of Synergy Sports’ Strategy Team, working on new initiatives and content that expand Synergy’s brand awareness and fan engagement. You can follow him on Twitter @squad209.