LeBron James is not just the King. Lakers’ power forward Jared Dudley was quoted last week saying “LeBron is the system. The coach might call plays, but LeBron is calling 80 to 90 percent of the plays when he’s in there.”
There’s always been a naive assumption head coaches and coaching staffs aren’t as important on LeBron James led NBA teams because the King has so much control over the actual plays the team runs when he’s on the floor. That’s always been the case in a league where superstar talent dictates what happens on the court but you can’t ignore how important the offensive and defensive systems and schemes of the head coach are to the team’s success.
While there’s no doubt LeBron is one of the greatest and smartest players to ever play the game and a veritable head coach on the floor, he’s still reliant on the base offensive sets and schemes his head coach and staff designs. While you can’t discount how LeBron impacts offenses when in the game, it’s equally important the front office surrounds him with the right players and the coaching staff gives him the right offensive system to succeed.
The Lakers’ VP of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka and his front office have done a terrific job surrounding LeBron with a diverse and talented cast of veteran players who complement him both offensively and defensively. But it’s been head coach Frank Vogel and the veteran staff they hired that’s given LeBron James the offensive and defensive systems and strategies that have enabled him to transform the Lakers into the best team in the league.
Designing an offense for LeBron James to run is not as simple a challenge as it might at first seem. In fact, LeBron has earned a well deserved reputation as a ‘coach killer’ for his role in the firings of Mike Brown and David Blatt. The truth is LeBron’s a demanding superstar who expects his front office to surround him with the right players and his head coaches to give him the right sets and schemes to take advantage of his basketball smarts and skills.
When that doesn’t happen, LeBron speaks up. Sometimes, the coach and superstar are able to reach an understanding, as Erik Spoelstra and he did in Miami. Other times, it’s led to changes in head coaches as in Cleveland. LeBron’s relationship with Frank Vogel, however, has been smooth and respectful from day one, primarily because Frank has gone out of the way to make his tenure as head coach a collaborative one with his superstar.
James also respects that Vogel has a work ethic and thoroughness as a coach that mirrors his own approach to his craft as a player. It’s common to find James and Vogel sitting together on Lakers’ flights watching game videos. That give-and-take between coach and superstar is a big part of what has made the Lakers a better team as the season has progressed and Vogel has tweaked the team’s offensive and defensive strategies to optimize James.
We’ve seen this on the offensive end as Vogel made smart adjustments to weaponize LeBron James’ ability to post up defenders, especially in the Lakers’ weekend sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. Clearing one side of the floor to isolate and limit LeBron double-teams and running top-of-the-key pick-and-rolls with the roll man screening opposing drop coverage centers in the paint unleashed LeBron to get to the rim.
The Lakers’ addition of Markieff Morris from the buyout market also gave Vogel another weapon to use to counter strategies of the Bucks and Clippers to clog up the paint and prevent James and Davis from attacking the rim. One of the other strategies that opened up the Lakers’ offense versus the Bucks and Clippers was Frank Vogel’s unveiling of five-out small ball sets to provide James and Davis the spacing they needed to attack the basket.
Designing defenses to take advantage of LeBron’s renewed motivation and determination to return to being an elite defender is another way Frank Vogel has been able to weaponize his superstar’s unique smarts and skills. One of the reasons why the Lakers have been able to take over the top spot in most of the league’s power rankings has been the great job Vogel’s done building a top-three defense powered by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The Los Angeles Lakers not only have the third ranked defense in the league season-to-date but also the top ranked defense in the fourth quarter. They're even getting better, with the second ranked defense since the All-Star break. In fact, the Lakers big wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers were highlighted by elite man-to-man defense from LeBron James against fellow superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.
The Lakers used a combination of strong individual defense from James and former All-Defensive stalwarts like Avery Bradley and Danny Green plus elite rim protection anchored by former All-Defensive center Anthony Davis. Vogel has always provided his teams with solid defensive principles and game plans featuring strong rim protection and aggressive physicality in the paint designed to take teams out of the normal defense and force bad shots.
Led by Lebron, the Lakers’ defense through the ten games since the All-Star break was dominate, especially in the fourth quarter when they posted a defensive rating more than ten points lower than any other NBA team. LeBron now has the best defensive rating for the season among rotation players and has been the key, along with Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso, to the team’s elite fourth quarter defensive rating to close out games.
So while you cannot underestimate how important LeBron is to the Lakers’ success at both ends of the court, you also have to give Frank Vogel credit for his elite offensive and defensive systems, schemes, and adjustments. LeBron James’ basketball savvy and physical talent has been unleashed by the smart coaching of Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel and his veteran staff of assistant coaches, including Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and Phil Handy.
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