If you’ve caught any of the 2015 NBA Finals, you’ve probably noticed the odd way the Cleveland Cavaliers run their offense. Down two superstars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cavs have resorted running their entire offense through LeBron James.
James is playing a combination of point guard, shooting guard and power forward, and playing a lot of what is called “iso ball”—going one-on-one against a defender while his four teammates stand on the opposite side of the court, waiting for a pass or a cut to the basket.
For fans, it can be productive and and rage-inducing at the same time. On the one hand, by his own admission the best basketball player in the world is doing what he does best—taking a defender one-on-one to the hoop. On the other hand, that isn’t always what happens. Sometime James settles for a jumper or fadeaway 3-pointer while his teammates stand around and watch, a classic recipe for bad offense. There are five players on the court for a reason: to move around and find the best shot possible.
“In its purest form, the number 1 goal on offense is to take the highest percentage shot. That’s your goal every single time down the floor, and your goal on defense is to make them get the lowest percentage shot possible,” says Alan Stein, owner of Stronger Team and renowned basketball strength and conditioning coach. “Given that Kyrie is out and looking at the offensive lineup around LeBron, [James is] pretty much their best option nine times out of 10 to take the best shot for the team.”
Because of their roster deficiencies, Stein believes the iso offense is the Cavs’ best bet. And since James is far and away the Cavs’ best player, beginning each offensive set with the ball in his hands is the best way to go. For much of the NBA Finals, it’s worked, as LeBron’s iso ball has lulled Golden State defenders to sleep and created open shots for teammates, despite them not moving a whole lot while LeBron works his magic.
Still, Stein is wary about younger basketball players taking more than what’s necessary from LeBron’s iso-heavy offense. Stein says, “I’d be very careful to say that to a high school kid, because the first thing I would tell them is, ‘You’re not LeBron.’ I know for a fact there are high schools out there that have one really good player, and everyone else is kind of a role player, so I don’t think it is a problem to have the offense run through that player if that’s what the personnel determines. But as a basketball critic, I always prefer to watch the Spurs or the Warriors,which basically play selfless basketball. I think that team basketball and having several weapons will beat the team that only has one weapon, no matter how big that weapon is.”
Bottom line: depending on the makeup of your team, an isolation-based offense can be successful when used properly. When you’re being guarded by a smaller man or want to draw the defense and kick it out to a perimeter shooter, it can be very effective. But when it’s predictable as a constant, the defense is allowed to set up and wait for you, expending little effort on that end of the court. Like Stein says, be judicious with the use of iso ball.