If, in the hours after LeBron James announced he would join the Los Angeles Lakers, you found yourself wondering what in the hell, exactly, the Lakers were doing by rounding out their roster with the likes of Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo … well, you were not alone!
The run of post-LeBron additions seemed like a 180-degree change in direction from the sort of roster-building we’ve seen generate the most successful lineups around James over the past handful of years: lights-out shooters and physical defenders who can contribute off the ball while LeBron runs the show. After making one such signing that sort of fit the bill — re-upping ostensible 3-and-D shooting guard (and fellow Klutch Sports Group client) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for $12 million — the Lakers then inked a spot-minutes big man who needs a tightly defined role and two players who aren’t shooting threats, and whose primary contributions have always come with the ball in their hands.
Even if team president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka had anticipated not being able to land two marquee stars this summer — a possibility that became much more likely when Paul George decided to stay put in Oklahoma City — this couldn’t have been the game plan, right?
It is, in fact, the plan that LeBron and Magic cooked up
Well, according to Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN … yes. Yes, it was the plan, the one that James and Johnson sketched out during the hours-long meeting on the eve of free agency that sealed LeBron-to-L.A.: one in which James will play a “vastly different” style of basketball than he did in Cleveland on “a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers” on the wing who will push the pace and allow LeBron to move closer to the basket and play “from the post,” like “Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan [did] as they approached their mid-30s.”
More from Windhorst and Shelburne:
The Cavs were a team of specialists — many of them shooters — who were placed around the league’s ultimate Swiss Army knife. But at times, especially during the playoffs, it did have the feel that James was playing 1-on-5 and needing to play 48 minutes because he was the team’s only true creator and playmaker. […]
“I know some people are rolling their eyes but I like what the Lakers have done,” a rival Western Conference executive said. “You can find shooters. They’ve taken some in the last few drafts. Playmakers matter and are harder to find.”
Maybe this is a new way to get LeBron more help
It is inarguable that the Cavaliers’ chances of winning were almost singularly defined by James’ availability and production. It was true this past season, when no iteration of Cleveland’s roster featured a bankable secondary ball-handler and facilitator, and when Tyronn Lue’s club needed LeBron to average better than 41 minutes per game in the first and third rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs to win seven-game nail-biters against the Pacers and Celtics just to get back to the Finals. It was even true the year before, when the Cavs outscored their opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when James played and — even with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — got outscored by 8.5 points-per-100 when LeBron sat.
James definitely bristled at times under that creative burden in Cleveland — recall, if you will, his complaints that the Cavs were “top-heavy as s***,” and that they needed “a f*****g playmaker” — and at times wound up damn near entirely gassed in the postseason. It would stand to reason that, as he moves into his mid-30s, he would want to operate on a team where somebody else (and perhaps even multiple somebodies!) could be capable of creating quality scoring chances and handling the ball, so that he didn’t have to do it all, all the time. And after past team-ups with a wide variety of ball-handling colleagues — Irving, Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and so on — have met with widely varying success on both an individual and team basis, maybe changing the framework of the partnership makes sense; instead of your-turn-my-turn on the wing, maybe having James more frequently stationed inside alters the geometry of the court and the tenor of the defense enough to help things run more smoothly through multiple creators.
“Playing more like Bryant and Jordan will take time and patience and James told Johnson that some habits will be hard to break, sources said,” wrote Windhorst and Shelburne. “But James knows moving to playing more inside and giving up some control of the ball is important as he ages and his athleticism starts to fade.”
Will LeBron really stick to this shift when the going gets tough?
I don’t doubt that this conversation happened, or the reporting on it. It’s completely reasonable that James would have input in the design of the roster he’d be joining, and I fully believe that a player as smart as LeBron realizes that even a superhuman specimen can’t expect to hold up precisely the same way with 54,000-plus NBA minutes on his body as he has in the years spent building up that workload. It’s just that … well, we’re going to have see all these changes stick to believe they will, right?
Cavs fans when they hear Lebron will play faster, play off ball, play the 4 and focus on defense pic.twitter.com/Acr0R2hxKf
— sam esfandiari (@samesfandiari) July 5, 2018
LeBron’s teams have never played fast; like Chris Paul, he prefers to orchestrate in the half-court, move the pieces around the chessboard to identify the specific matchup he wants to exploit, and set up the preferred play two or three passes ahead. I’m skeptical that the Lakers are going to get anywhere near last year’s third-place ranking in pace factor with LeBron leading the way, no matter how much head coach Luke Walton wants to push the ball down the court.
LeBron might nominally line up at power forward, and even serve at times as a point-center, working with his back to the basket on offense to take advantage of his size and prodigious passing gifts. Over the course of a full season, though, he’s just about always done so flanked by another forward who serves as a functional four on the defensive end of the court — Shane Battier, Richard Jefferson, Jeff Green, Jae Crowder, et al. — to save his body the beating of banging with bigger guys for big minutes all year long. Whether Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma can play that sort of defensive sin-eater role very much remains to be seen.
Maybe it will all pan out. Maybe all of L.A.’s holdover young players and incoming vets will shoot better than nearly all of us expect them to, and a Lakers team built around James working like some unholy combination of Karl Malone and Arvydas Sabonis out of the post will introduce a fresh new style of high-efficiency offense into the NBA ecosystem. Maybe it’ll keep more tread on LeBron’s tires while also providing the Lakers with a remixed version of the return to Showtime their fans have been dying to see. This just seems to be a lot more “maybes” heading into a season than we’ve typically associated with a LeBron James-led team at this stage in the summer.
The idea of relieving LeBron of primary playmaking responsibility more frequently as an energy-saving mechanism makes sense. But if the natural outgrowth of it is a vision in which the best version of the Lakers is one in which LeBron handles the ball less so Lance Stephenson and Lonzo Ball can handle it more … well, again, I’ll believe that when I see it in practice, and that LeBron’s really on board with it when he stays with it even after watching kickout after post-up-kickout pass result in a clang, a defensive rebound and a runout the other way.
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