Role-Playing LeBron: Inside the Strange World of NBA’s Superstar Stand-Ins

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Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) reacts after bing called for a foul during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Houston Rockets Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

There’s no way to replicate the experience of playing against LeBron James in the playoffs. But as the Houston Rockets prepare during their second-round series against James’ Los Angeles Lakers, they’ve found the next-best thing: an undrafted 5’9″ guard.

Wait…huh?

Meet Rockets rookie guard Chris Clemons, who has been given the prestigious assignment of play-acting as James for the scout team, a collection of end-of-bench players who help the Rockets’ starters walk through the plays the Lakers will run during the series. 

Clemons pretending to be the 6’9″ four-time league MVP, who most people consider the best basketball player in the world? It’s not as wild as it sounds.

“LeBron actually plays [point guard] most of the time,” Clemons tells B/R. “He’s pretty much everything on the court. He plays a whole bunch of different positions. That’s what makes him special. So I would definitely say being a point guard helps, skill set-wise, in trying to replicate his game.”

Most coaches employ some variation of this tactic during their playoff practices, and it’s surprisingly effective.

“Sometimes a player plays a lot better when he thinks he’s somebody else,” says Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “It’s amazing, when we watch it we say, ‘Why don’t you play like that all the time?’ We tell them, act like you’re Kevin Durant or whoever. And they go crazy. They start scoring the ball.

“These guys are extremely talented, even if they’re on the scout team or whatever you want to call it.”

For current matchups, coaches are often reluctant to divulge how they’re game-planning for opposing stars. Lakers coach Frank Vogel won’t say who’s standing in for James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but he did reveal that fourth-year guard Quinn Cook did a “pretty darn good” Damian Lillard impersonation during the Lakers’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

And Miami Heat rookie forward KZ Okpala, who has played 26 NBA minutes over five career games, was tasked with pretending to be reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in practices during the Heat’s second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Rockets' Chris Clemons

The Rockets’ Chris ClemonsDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

“When you’re on the scout team and you’re one of those developmental players and you’re asked to be one of the stars in this league, those are their favorite practices,” says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “I’m not going to compare them—it’s not about that—but [Okpala] has some qualities that are