LeBron James has been on quite the tear lately.
In the 16 games he’s played since serving a one-game suspension, James is averaging 30.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest. He’s been incredibly efficient, posting those numbers on .544/.390/.782 shooting splits.
James has 11 30-point games during that stretch, giving him 16 such games on the season, which is more than anyone else in the NBA. He’s not far removed from going off for 43 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the Trail Blazers, making him the fourth oldest player in NBA history to post a 40-10 game.
Father Time is undefeated, but you wouldn’t know it based on the level James continues to play.
The kicker is the Lakers won only eight of those 16 games, but they may have found something in playing James more at center.
You know what that means — to the film room!
Malik Monk rebounds a missed 3-pointer from Norman Powell and gives the ball up to James immediately. James returns the favor shortly after he crosses halfcourt, giving the ball back to Monk to run a pick-and-roll from the top of the 3-point line.
The other Lakers on the court are Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson. Westbrook parks himself in the right corner while Bradley and Johnson overload the opposite side.
Westbrook and Johnson aren’t exactly 3-point threats, but the Lakers still have decent spacing by surrounding James with four perimeter players.
James is quick to screen and roll, but he makes enough contact with Monk’s defender, Tony Snell, to help Monk get downhill. That forces Larry Nance Jr., who is playing center for Portland and has the task of defending James, to slide over to protect the basket.
With Nance stepping up, Powell helps off of Westbrook in the corner to prevent James from getting an easy bucket. (You can see James motioning for an alley-oop.)
This is where things get interesting.
Unable to get a layup or sneak a pass to James underneath the basket, Monk moves the ball along to Westbrook in the right corner. Westbrook has an open look at a 3-pointer, but he turns it down, choosing to instead give the ball to James, who is now being defended by Snell in the post.
Meanwhile, both Johnson and Bradley move over a touch to make space for Monk in the corner. That’s important because it forces Nance, who is now defending Monk, to make a tough decision — leave Monk in the corner to provide help at the rim or stick to Monk in the corner so that he doesn’t get a clean look at a 3 if James kicks it out to him.
Nance goes with option No. 2, leading to a layup for James once he gets around Snell.
Why it matters
James is giving off some strong Magic Johnson vibes right now.
Two years ago, James logged the bulk of his minutes at point guard and led the league with 10.2 assists per game. Now, he’s playing mostly center for a Lakers team that continues to be without Anthony Davis for an extended period of time because of an MCL sprain.
This isn’t the first time in his career that James has played center, but we’ve never seen him do it to this degree. According to Cleaning The Glass, James has logged over a third (35.0 percent) of his minutes at center to this point of the season. His previous career-high? 3.0 percent in 2018-19.
James isn’t even a guard or forward masquerading as a center. As Todd Whitehead of Synergy Basketball pointed out, the way in which he’s generating his offense when Westbrook is on the court and Davis, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are on the bench is very center-like, with him posting up, cutting, rolling and attacking the offensive glass much, much more when he moves to the five.