Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves locked in a fourth quarter battle at home against the 16-22 Sacramento Kings. Both teams were missing key players, and it was the sort of game a good team emerges victorious from — a label the Lakers presumably intend to warrant.
So, down the stretch, Los Angeles embraced a partnership that’s become increasingly reliable and prolific in recent months: the LeBron James-Malik Monk two-man tango. For five straight possessions, across a 2.5-minute stretch, LeBron and Monk were involved in every play. One of them screened for the other and offense flowed from that action.
The Lakers scored on every turn and tallied 12 points, spinning a 105-104 deficit into a 116-112 advantage — and an eventual 122-114 win. LeBron’s importance to Los Angeles is obvious. He’s LeBron, an all-time great, possibly the all-time great, still playing at an MVP level. Monk’s value, however, required time to percolate. But is abundantly evident as of late.
On Dec. 28, he was inserted into the starting lineup. The Lakers are 5-2 since then and tout the NBA’s top-ranked offense (120.1 offensive rating). Four games against the NBA's bottom five defenses help, yet the process behind this offensive surge is the salient long-term takeaway and Monk is integral to it.
During this span, he’s been an absolute flamethrower, averaging 20 points on 67.1 percent True Shooting percentage (.510/.481/.895 split). Of course, that shooting is a bit unsustainable. But take a step back to peer at the season-long numbers and they’ll still pop off the page — a career-high 12 points on 60.5 TS% (.472/.396/.844 split). They’ve also trended upward every month.
7 points on 52 TS% in October; 11 points on 60 TS% in November; 14 points on 64 TS% in December; 20.5 points on 63 TS% in January.
Each week, it feels as though Los Angeles further realizes the value of Monk’s dynamic offensive portfolio. Scheming shots for him has become a priority of the offense rather than letting them populate organically. He’s no longer predominantly just a release valve. He’s a catalyst as well.
Movement shooters have historically thrived alongside LeBron. Monk is of that ilk. Defenses are typically placed into a strenuous bind when he screens for his superstar teammate, and the Lakers are continually applying its utility more often. Sacramento tried trapping and switching the action. Neither worked. Playing it straight up wasn’t viable because Monk sets good screens.
Most teams cannot afford to switch the action because few defenders have the physical profile to contain LeBron off the dribble. When teams trap him to route the offense elsewhere, Monk can quickly set his feet and fire off the catch. In some Lakers lineups, a help defender stunting to deter Monk’s jumper will often mean leaving a shooting or driving threat open instead.
Monk’s also a bouncy athlete around the rim, with the creativity to finish in traffic if he opts to roll rather than pop. While LeBron is usually the ballhandler, Monk touts enough creation juice to let him slide off the ball occasionally too. The formula is simple: pair an elite scorer with a high-level shooter and watch the rewards flow in.
The beauty and vitality of Monk’s arsenal is he doesn’t need to be regularly scripted into the offense to empower everyone. Doing so does boost the offense, but he’ll still rock regardless. Among cutting, shooting and attacking closeouts, he’s a bona fide off-ball scorer with a keen sense of how to generate and maximize his touches.
He holsters a snappy release to cleanly fire jumpers and is unbothered by most contests. When the Lakers’ offensive hubs — LeBron, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis — tilt the defense and the ball comes his way as a trusty release valve, he’ll let it fly and avoid resetting the offense.
Auxiliary players who maintain advantages and capitalize on them are paramount to fashioning effective offense around stars. The Lakers haven’t been an effective offense throughout the entire season, but the team has shown periods of effectiveness — like the one they’re currently enjoying.
Because he maintains advantages and spaces the floor, Monk is helping fuel that. He’s a crucial factor as to why LeBron-at-center lineups have been so dominant offensively. If they’re going to extend this recent run of success, he’ll sit near the core of those efforts.
Each of LeBron, Davis and Westbrook thrive in the paint offensively. Monk, as a decisive, efficient floor-spacer, amplifies their skills and eases the complexity for the others to stamp their mark every night. He shoots on the move, migrates toward openings along the perimeter or as a cutter and remains a threat when run off the arc. His wide-ranging off-ball chops are a substantial windfall.
Although most of his buckets occur on brief touches and with few dribbles, he’s shown the requisite zip and handling prowess to win on the ball against certain mismatches. He’s been a legit three-level scorer this season, shooting 71% at the rim (89th percentile), 47% from mid-range (84th percentile and 39% beyond the arc (82nd percentile), according to Cleaning The Glass (as of Jan. 8).
He has some pop and craft as a driver, and finishes with either hand. Per Synergy, he ranks in the 81st percentile as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. He won’t consistently turn the corner against defenders, but he isn’t entirely inept and can get downhill to spur rotations periodically.
There’s just enough electricity in his legs for LeBron to operate as a spot-up shooter, roller and cutter alongside a guard whose shooting defenses respect. Westbrook’s slashing and interior passing acumen shine when LeBron teams up with him, whereas Monk’s shooting gravity is the basis of his table setting for The King. Most of his passing reads are basic, but he’ll deliver them aptly and really does bend defenses because of his scoring aura.
One of the Lakers’ offensive tenets is to run, run, run. According to Synergy, they rank third in transition frequency. They’re also third in pace. Westbrook’s arrival is likely driving that, though Monk accentuates the efforts. He’ll promptly bomb from deep on the break, cut inside as a trailer, or beam to the rim after a miss and convert an outlet pass from someone like Westbrook or LeBron.
His recognition of the emphasis this team places on transition volume is yet another example of his snug fit offensively. The half-court setting reveals that fit most commonly, but it’s evident almost all the time. Per 100 possessions, Los Angeles is 9.4 points better with Monk on the floor this season because he’s having an awesome year through a manner the Lakers’ tactical context emphasizes and needs.
As they seemingly achieve rhythm midway through the year (despite Sunday's loss), Monk’s emergence looms large. He complements their best player and suits their identity. Questions persist for this club, but his role and place as a prominent starter is not one of them right now. He’s been too good to posit otherwise.