Metacognition: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the nature of improvisation


Using LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as exemplars we can begin building a heuristic to better unpack how improvisation is deployed in NBA offenses.

Every offensive possession is shaped by hundreds of small decisions, made in tiny feedback loops and in the blink of an eye. Dribble left or right? Should I move towards the ball, or away from it? Do I cut now? Or now? What about now? Is it better to attack my defender? Or pass to my teammate and let him try his luck?

The system a coaching staff puts in place is a series of rules that are meant to help shape and guide the decisions players make. It is a collection of pliable precepts for when and where to cut, how to curl off screens, who touches the ball when and what kind of scenario should be in place to justify a shot attempt. We are talking about complex systems so obviously, the rules are fluid and breaking them when the moment calls for it is part of the plan. A certain amount of improvisation is baked into every offense.

In the moment, an improvisatory basketball act can feel like magic, pulling a card from a tarot deck of infinite possibility. But even improvisation exists within a framework that can be defined and categorized.

Take this Kyrie Irving 3-pointer for example.

In a larger sense, this is not necessarily improvisation. The structure of the Nets’ offense allows for a high pick-and-roll between Irving and Allen. It sets the stage and then relies on Irving’s handle, vision, anticipation and finishing ability to “yes, and…” their way into a high-value shot-attempt — in this case a pull-up, step-back 3-point from the wing. That shot, too, is defined as high-value in the structure Kenny Atkinson laid out, if not explicitly then certainly implicitly.

But everything that happens between Irving’s first through-the-legs crossover and him rising to shoot over Myles Turner is of the moment. It is Irving reading the lean in Malcolm Brogdon’s shoulders, the feel of the ball as it spins in his hand, the shuffle of Myles Turner’s feet and the space between himself, the basket and everyone in a white jersey.

Irving’s particular brand of improvisation is shaped by the Nets’ offense but also by the considerable tools he has at his disposal — experience, creativity, quickness, touch and perhaps the finest handle in the NBA right now. I would posit that Irving’s improvisations are guided by possibility and the fact that for him, the possibilities, moment-to-moment are perhaps broader than for any other player in the NBA.

Compare that to this LeBron James isolation.

Irving’s 3-pointer involved dozens of decisions and counters to the defensive stimuli. James appears to make just one read, a single decision. His hang dribble and slight back-step freezes Marcus Morris for just a second. From there, it’s all straight lines and massive shoulders.

As exemplars of LeBron’s and Kyrie’s styles of play, these are single data points, vast oversimplifications. But I think they are representative to a large degree. Irving’s improvisations are inherently complex because of the complex tools available to him. That is not to say James isn’t capable of great complexity from possession to possession but the beauty of his game is the way he gravitates towards simplicity, the way his strength and grace and touch allow him to find the shortest distance between any two points. He often gives you something new because of the way he can dismantle seemingly impossible barriers, but his game is more about execution and precision than it is about invention.

Kyrie Irving vs. LeBron James: What’s possible vs. what works

The comparison between Irving and James then reveals two spectra on which to think about improvisation — what’s possible and what’s worked. Irving’s approach is, “how could I do this?” while James’ is, “how have I done this?” Again, that’s not to say James isn’t capable of creating new and original works of basketball artistry, it’s that he seems to rely on familiar building blocks to create them. Irving seems to rely on images from fever dreams and stuff he read on Reddit and the way colors taste.

If you were to graph this relationship, it would look something like this, along with a few other familiar faces.

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I added a few other players to this graph because the LeBron and Kyrie comparison is not just instructive in their relationship to each other but to how the NBA’s offensive stars form a constellation around them.

James Harden, relatively, seems closer to LeBron than Kyrie on both axes. He plays with the boundaries of convention, is more willing to thumb his nose and propriety and tradition. But whatever differences there are between him and LeBron, aesthetically, their decision-making paradigms are connected — find the path of least resistance and use it to batter an opponent into exhaustion.

Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook lay out another interesting dynamic for comparison, sitting at the corners, fairly distant from both LeBron and Kyrie.

Curry plays with a lot of the same “drank four Red Bulls, put my roller skates on and then set my hat on fire” vibe as Kyrie. He is constantly sprinting across a knife’s edge of doom but, as often as not, his unbelievable creativity with the ball leaves him not just unscathed but triumphant. Defenders inside the arc are just cylinders for him to pinball off of. But his elite shooting touch gives him an improvisatory dimension unlike any other in the league. It places him at the apex of both axes on the chart above but I suppose it’s arguable that it actually transcends the heuristic completely, bending the two axes around each other.

Curry can and does try anything in his pursuit of points (what’s possible) but he also has an established track record of repeatedly doing the impossible, things that would be inconceivable for almost any other player (what works). Throwing up 30-footers is no longer a revolutionary act of imagination when you’re 60-of-186 (32.3 percent) on them over the past five years.

Westbrook sits in the opposite corner, towards the bottom end of both spectra. I mean this not to his detriment but his improvisatory inspiration is not immediately obvious. He is more like LeBron in eschewing complexity — straight lines drives, mashing the accelerator, winning with speed and power and verticality. It is not a wellspring of creativity that drives him, but he also doesn’t seem sensitive to the feedback loops of what actually works and doesn’t work for him. He’s the guy who just keeps trying to run through brick walls because he believes in himself more than he believes in bricks.

From a strategic standpoint, the implications here are fairly rote and already being implemented. You try to take the easy stuff away from LeBron, you try not to let Harden draw fouls, make Kyrie feel like he has to do everything, throw as many bodies as you can at Curry and try to stay in front of Westbrook. From a team-building standpoint, it’s perhaps an instructive way to think about offensive friction and why some player pairings work and others don’t (LeBron and Kyrie were too different, Harden and Chris Paul were too similar).

And from a fan perspective, it can perhaps alleviate some of the frustration we feel when players with seemingly limitless talent and tools at their disposal tend to try and solve basketball problems in the same ways over and over again.

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Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.