The Lakers string of additions following their agreement to a four-year deal with LeBron James have been curious to say the least. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo have all joined the squad by way of one-year deals to be the supplemental veteran cast around LeBron and, for now, the rest of the Lakers’ young core.
Aside from KCP, none of the players added to the Lakers this offseason are remotely decent perimeter shooters, and considering the Lakers were one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams a year ago, that seems to be less than ideal for pairing with LeBron. For years the prevailing thought has been to surround James with shooters that will space the floor and allow him to probe and attack as he pleases, utilizing his insane passing acumen to hit the open man when the defense inevitably collapses.
However, the Lakers are going in the opposite direction and some have wondered if that’s a Magic Johnson/Rob Pelinka thing, or a directive from LeBron himself. On Thursday, we got the answer to that from as reliable a source on LeBron as there is, as Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN penned a column that this was, indeed, all part of [extreme Drake voice] Bron’s plan.
According to Windhorst and Shelburne, James and Johnson mapped out this offseason in their meeting at his house the opening night of free agency, with Pelinka and Johnson the ones to figure out logistics and the rest. But for those wondering if James’ return from his European vacation would be to a surprising roster, that’s apparently not going to happen. Apparently, James is trying to commit to playing a different style of ball this year, one that will take the ball out of his hands a bit more and ask him to work more out of the post.
James, who will turn 34 in December, had studied the careers of all-time greats such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and noted how they moved from the wing to the post as they approached their mid-30s. Bryant, for example, averaged 5.5 post-ups a game in his age-36 season in 2014-15 (most among guards) and 2.9 post-ups a game in his age-37 season (still fifth-most among guards).
James’ play in the post has ebbed and flowed over the past decade. He has developed his skills playing there, but has always been pulled to operating from the perimeter, where he’s more comfortable and where his teams often need him…
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. But James knows playing more inside and yielding some control of the ball is important as he ages and his athleticism starts to fade.
That sound you hear is a group of Cavs fans collectively laughing at the idea James is going to suddenly yield control of the team and the ball-handling to someone else after he wouldn’t do that when he had Kyrie Irving entering his prime alongside him. It won’t be a surprise if he does this to start the season, but it will be a stunner if it sticks.
As the piece notes, James knows those habits will be hard to break, and for the Lakers to make the playoffs this season in the West, they can’t afford too much in the way of growing pains. The easiest fix they will have to win games is to let LeBron go back to the old LeBron, but that will even run into problems as space will be hard to come by with these players around him.
Rondo, Stephenson, and Lonzo Ball, the three players that will likely be tasked with taking over that ball-handling load in this current July plan clearly being made through rose-colored glasses. The best three-point shooter of that group is Rondo, which is not a good thing, and if they do revert back to the old James formula they’ll be struggling to find him the spacing he needs.
There’s also the issue of LeBron still needing spacing even in this new system where he’ll suddenly be playing off the ball more and operating in the post. If they don’t have shooting around James, there won’t be an awful lot of room for LeBron to work in the post as whoever is guarding Rondo and/or Stephenson will happily dig down to double James and, if your team has remotely reasonable defensive discipline, you’ll let those two hoist threes when LeBron kicks out rather than chasing and eventually leaving the one actual shooter they may have on the floor open.
The biggest issue with all of this is that it seems to be a response to the Cavaliers not being able to get past the Warriors because their roster of “shooters” around LeBron was unable to defend well enough against Golden State. The lesson in that should have been to find more balance between defense and offense, and also maybe to not rely on extremely streaky and erratic shooters quite as much as the Cavs had to (because J.R. Smith might shoot 77 percent in one series – sorry Toronto – and then turn into a pumpkin the rest of the time).
Instead, they seem to have decided to change the formula completely and decide they can find shooters at some point — it’s possible they could add a Wayne Ellington in that $6 million of space they have and give them an additional lethal three-point shooter to help out a lot — and lean heavily on guys with reputations as playmakers and defenders. The problem is, Stephenson hasn’t been an actually good defender in a while, and Rondo can be effective but isn’t the same as he once was as a terrifying defender at the point of attack.
Over the years, the general consensus, and rightfully so, has been to not question LeBron James the basketball player. I still refuse to do so, however I do think it’s fair to question LeBron as a personnel decision-maker, given the shortcomings of the roster in Cleveland. That wasn’t all his doing, but some of the longer term deals that crippled their ability to make moves and improve were at the strong suggestion of LeBron at the least. Now, if we are to believe these are additions he’s signing off on, there’s even more evidence that he may be a bit like GM Doc Rivers.
The issue in all of this is, really, the message being pedaled that this season is about trying to win and compete when it’s painfully obvious the goal is to keep flexibility for 2019. That is a more than reasonable goal for this season given that they weren’t able to bring in another top star. I also understand you can’t really state that out loud when you just signed LeBron, but it’s still frustrating how many people are buying into this team being much more than a team just good enough to squeeze them into the playoffs before making a run at top guys next summer.