Let’s take a look at why the presence of new Los Angeles Lakers point guard Russell Westbrook could cause LeBron James to start slow next season.
The Lakers can get Westbrook close to the basket in two ways, transition and via the pick and roll. The Lakers have spent 16.4 percent of their possessions in transition over the past two seasons, averaging 18.3 per game.
After the transition possessions, the Lakers spend most of their time in the pick and roll as they have been in the set 14.8 percent of the time over the last two seasons, averaging 16.6 per game. Westbrook has shot 53.9 percent in transition since 2015 on 4.5 attempts per game.
He has generated 6.5 points per game in transition. Westbrook has supplemented his work in transition with pick and rolls, shooting 49.3 percent from the field on 5.5 attempts per game. Westbrook has averaged 6.4 points per game in the pick and roll since 2015.
Unfortunately, suppose the Lakers choose to make Russell Westbrook the leading ball handler. In that case, James will spend a substantial portion of his minutes standing behind the arc, as the Lakers like to have multiple players behind the 3-point line as they are doing their transition and pick and roll sets.
For instance, James had the ball at the top of the key late in the fourth quarter of a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers. James waited a couple of seconds until Anthony Davis came up to set the screen.
While James waited, Avery Bradley, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stood behind the 3-point line as floor spacers. They stayed behind the 3-point line for the remainder of the possession, watching as Davis set the screen for James.
James went over the screen, but Shake Milton and Al Horford were there, surrounding him. Consequently, James chose to pass the ball to Davis, who had popped out to the 3-point line. Davis would end the possession by making a three from the top of the key.
Unfortunately, James has struggled in five of the past six seasons as a 3-point shooter. If we took out last season, when he shot 36.3 percent on 6.5 attempts per game, James has only converted 34.7 percent of his attempts since 2015 on 5 shots per game.
Consequently, if he spends more time behind the 3-point line, defenders will start to give him space because they want to encourage him to take a bad shot. James has only slightly above average from the 3-point line when defenders have given him space, as he has only converted 36.1 percent of his uncontested attempts since 2015 on 4.4 shots.
The Lakers would have to make James the primary ball-handler for him to have a successful season. James has shot over 71 percent within five feet of the basket since 2015. He has averaged 3.2 points per game within this distance: 36 percent of his production.
The team will eventually realize that they need to stagger both Westbrook and James because they both need the ball in their hands to be effective as players.