The LeBron James, Anthony Davis Pairing Must Get Even Better

Early out of the gates, there isn’t much question that the duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is clicking every bit as well as Los Angeles Lakers fans could have hoped.

The Purple and Gold are off to a 10-2 start, perched merrily atop the Western Conference standings.

They have the league’s second-best “Simple Rating System” (SRS) at plus-9.94, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. They have a top defensive rating, holding their opponents to fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference, something that hasn’t been done since the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs.

Vets like Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo are playing revived, and Danny Green is making shots. The veteran presence on the team and winning seem to be creating a good locker room environment. One instance of that camaraderie came from Howard’s recent defense of teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope:

And with all that, if you’re a Lakers fan, the best news is there is still room for improvement.

Precocious

While the Lakers’ superstars are hardly young, they’re still very new and getting used to one another as a pairing. And as with most such situations, it should improve as they get to know one another.

When they’re on the court together, the team boasts a plus-90 scoring differential and a net rating of plus-14.7, per NBA.com. While that’s very nice, it’s not as nice as you’d expect. They’re only the fifth-best duo in the league based on plus-minus.

You can especially see they’re still getting to know one another when you look at their passing numbers.

Davis makes 3.1 buckets per game off James’ passes and feeds LeBron for another 1.8.  That total of 4.9 is solid but not great.  (Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic lead the league with 6.6 for the Denver Nuggets).

Furthermore, the Lakers’ stars aren’t very efficient when shooting off one another’s passes. Davis hits 44.1 percent overall and 12.5 percent from deep off LBJ’s passes, and the King hits 46.9 and 38.9 percent, respectively, off of Anthony’s passes. Both are far more efficient in general, and there’s bound to be some positive regression to the mean here, particularly in Davis’ case.

For instance, look at this pass from James to Davis. LeBron takes the entire defense with him, but the pass is just a bit off, Davis isn’t quite smooth in catching it or shooting it, and perhaps he wasn’t expecting it. All of those probably factor into him missing the shot:

Hence the word precocious. As well as they’ve played together, the potential for what they can do is far greater. As they learn one another’s tendencies, look for those shooting percentages to rise, and for the Lakers, who are only 9th in offensive rating, to go up.

Precarious

And yet, as wonderful as all that is, there are a couple of red flags which could indicate that the Lakers’ situation has some real concern as well.

The first and most serious issue is how dependent the Lakers are on James for their success. They’ve outscored their opponents in the 452 minutes he has been on the court, but they’ve been outscored by 7 points in the 177 minutes he’s been off it.

No one else on the Lakers has negative off-court point total. But it’s not just the scoring number that’s concerning.

The offensive rating drops from 114.7 to 88.8, the rebounding from 52.1 to 50.4, the effective field-goal percentage goes from 56.0 to 46.3, and while the assist percentage goes up when LBJ’s off the court, it’s more because the team can’t create points without him than they’re doing a better job of passing.

Nov 12, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) talks with forward Anthony Davis (3), guard Danny Green (14), forward Kyle Kuzma (0) and guard Rajon Rondo (9) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers have 26.8 assists per 100 plays when James is on the court and only 22.6 when he’s not.

While this makes a fantastic argument for LeBron as an early-season MVP front-runner, it’s got to be a bit disconcerting. If LeBron goes down, the Lakers go from title favorite to average, if that. Factoring in both his regular and postseason games, he’s played 56,738 minutes already, the sixth most in NBA history.  That’s just four fewer minutes than Tim Duncan, 550 fewer than Dirk Nowitzki, and 560 fewer than Kobe Bryant. At his current rate, he’ll be third all time in total minutes by the time the season ends.

According to Basketball Reference, James’ 39.2 Player Efficiency Rating is the best ever by a player over 35, but his usage percentage is the fourth-highest at 30.4.

That he can carry that much weight with this many miles at his age is a testament to LeBron’s conditioning. Still, unless he actually is a cyborg, it’s a precarious situation, particularly since last year was the first he had some injury issues.

The other thing that could be an issue is scheduling. To date, the Lakers have only played five games on the road, and only four of those were outside of their home stadium. (Their season opener was against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.)

Away games came against the Dallas Mavericks, San An Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls on one small road trip. The other was against the Phoenix Suns with a home game the following night. In sum, the Lakers have spent just four nights out of their beds. And while I can’t find anything that tracks who has traveled the most air miles, I’m pretty sure the Lakers are at near the bottom of the list.

That’s not to undercut what they’ve done, but to portend what lies ahead.

All the traveling they’re not doing now is going to come in the future. And a lot of that is going to land over the holiday season. Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 19, the Lakers are playing 15 games overall and 12 of them on the road. That much travel can mean fatigue, and fatigue can lead to injuries. And that’s where the above trends are concerning.

There’s been a lot of discussion about “load management” this year, and there’s certainly a time to apply it. The Lakers would be wise to rest James a game or two during that trip. They need to think “war” not “battle.”

If they walk the minefield carefully, the precocious should overcome the precarious, and the Lakers will be a viable threat to win the NBA title. If not, this becomes a much more mediocre team than its hot start would lead us to believe.

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