For years, Hakeem Olajuwon tutored NBA stars in the art of the post-up, teaching his footwork and sorcery in the paint.
If he wanted to, Chris Bosh could coach up a different niche group: big men playing with LeBron James.
“Playing with LeBron was like buying a Ferrari,” Bosh said. “You know it’s the best in the world. It looks amazing when you see it. But you have no idea how powerful it is once you try to drive it. You can go right off the road.”
Bosh learned the hard way. He will walk into the Hall of Fame soon thanks to winning two titles with the Miami Heat and earning 11 All-Star selections, including four playing alongside James. But the only thing that allowed him to learn how to play with James was actually doing it.
For Kevin Love in Cleveland, playing with James meant figuring out not only where he was supposed to be on the court — Love got six fewer shots a game in his first season with James — but also how to avoid mass media and social media quagmires off of it.
When James first teamed up with Anthony Davis in Los Angeles, they sought to avoid those pitfalls by promising each other to try to stay on the same page. “What I’m seeing here is how much they spend time together away from the basketball court,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And quite frankly, even in film sessions, in the locker room, it seems like the two of them are always together and just building that, that friendship. … I think LeBron’s just done everything in his power to make sure that he’s going out of his way to make sure Anthony’s comfortable with his new team.”
The two tried to keep expectations low for their early-season success because of the past issues James had merging with Bosh and Love. But James and Davis are playing fabulously together. Although you see them probing and developing their preferences, the union has exceeded even optimistic hopes for this early in the process.
“I didn’t think we were going to be able to connect this fast just because of the fact he had a lot of stuff going on this summer with ‘Space Jam ,’ so we didn’t get a lot of time to work out together,” Davis said. “Then we hit a short training camp and had to go to China, and all that stuff, so I’m surprised that we’ve got a little connection right now.”
That’s what has surprised Bosh. James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade played with one another on Team USA for multiple summers and in numerous All-Star Games, but that didn’t guarantee a smooth start together in Miami. That group began its first season together at 9-8 and really didn’t find a rhythm until the second season.
The Lakers are 8-2 and have been among the best defensive teams in the league, with James racking up triple-doubles.
“Team USA and the All-Star Games are catalysts for chemistry, but it’s not real life,” Bosh said. “You’re coming in with known unknowns, and you hope to find a rhythm by maybe Christmas and then get better from there.”
Through their first nine games, James had assisted Davis on 26 baskets, 10 more than any other teammate, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Compare that to his first nine games with Bosh, when it was 17 assists, and his first nine with Love, which produced only 11. Their pick-and-rolls have resulted in the highlight dunks that fans love and a schematic nightmare for opposing coaches. And even though they sometimes are caught a little out of position, there’s a natural flow that’s easy to see.
“I think that’s part of [LeBron’s] genius that he’s able to morph into whatever he needs to be, to bring out the best out of the other players,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team faced the Lakers last week. “His connection with [Bosh] was pretty natural, and I think this is, this just fits like a glove. … When both guys want to do it, commit to the process of getting better with it, you’re just going to see that improve dramatically as the season goes on.”
The scenarios are different, of course. In Miami and Cleveland, when James joined up with superstars, they formed a big three, not a big two as is the case now — there were more mouths to feed and egos to mesh. Plus, James is a different player in this phase of his career, in part because he’s the Lakers’ primary point guard.
He’s focused on getting Davis the ball and into a rhythm. In the first game of the season, James forced the ball toward Davis so much that he forgot about his own game and Davis ended up with 17 post-ups, easily the most for any game in his career.
Last week, Davis was named Western Conference Player of the Week — no surprise for a megastar who has won it six times before. But consider this: Since James won his first of 63 Player of the Week awards in 2004, only five teammates have ever earned one alongside him.
Love won it once in four years with James, in his third season in Cleveland, propelled by a game against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he had a 34-point first quarter. Kyrie Irving won it twice in three seasons with James. Davis did it in Week 2.
“I think it’s getting better and better as the days go on, just like with any relationship,” James said. “The relationship on the court, the relationship off the floor. The more and more time you spend together, if you guys have the same goals in mind, you have the same drive, then it organically happens.”
It was once unthinkable for a teammate of James’ to be an MVP candidate. Only a few times have players won the award with a former MVP as a teammate, usually as the more senior partner was on his way out of the league.
James won the 2010 MVP award in Cleveland with Shaquille O’Neal near retirement. Tim Duncan won alongside David Robinson in the final two years of the Admiral’s career. Larry Bird won with former winner Bill Walton playing 19 minutes off the bench. Magic Johnson won two MVPs with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one when Kareem was 39 and another when he was in his last season at 41.
Even if Davis is not the MVP favorite at this point, just being in the conversation indicates a smashing success — it means that James is drawing top-level play out of the younger star.
“I’m trying to win much more than an MVP, man,” Davis said, playing down the notion. “It’s early in the season, obviously; if the MVP comes, it comes. If the Defensive Player of the Year comes, it comes. But the entire team’s main goal is to win a championship, and we’re trying to just stay in the moment right now.”
James has joked that he and Davis aren’t quite peanut butter and jelly yet — James used the sandwich metaphor to describe his relationship with Wade when they joined up again in Cleveland in 2017, a remarriage that ended poorly and quickly — but more like peanut butter and banana.
The Lakers have had a favorable schedule so far, boosting their record, but regardless of the wins and losses, the partnership is showing enough promise that the Lakers’ horizons for the season appear to be expanding. And there should be more to come.
“We spent hours and hours, days and days with late-night meetings and tension and jubilation, the whole gamut,” Bosh said of learning to play with James. “He and AD will have their struggles, but it takes that struggle to understand who they are. You want some of that. They want it to work, you can see that, so it will.”
ESPN’s Eric Woodyard contributed to this report.