Coming into the season, much of the talk surrounding the new-look Los Angeles Lakers was about the potent pick-and-roll combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. James has long been one of the league’s best scorers and passers in pick-and-roll, with the ability to see everything a defense is doing (or will do, at times) and make exactly the right decision. Give him a multifaceted roll man in Davis and shooters to surround them and modern offense was going to be brought back to the purple and gold after a brief respite last season.
Their opening night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers wasn’t nearly as close as the 112-102 score would indicate, as the Lakers were thoroughly outclassed for the majority of the game. Since then, they’ve reeled off four wins in a row behind an above-average offense and a stifling defense. One of the chief concerns entering this year was Davis’ being famously resistant to the idea of playing the 5 throughout his career. Despite it being best for the team overall, it’s a lot of wear and tear for Davis in the regular season and he’s relatively brittle for an NBA player, with little knocks here and there keeping him out of the game consistently.
“It’s a tough balance,” head coach Frank Vogel said after the Lakers’ win over the Utah Jazz. “It’s a balance in a lot of different ways, too. To leave LeBron and Anthony in as long as possible, but you have to coach with the long haul in mind, and trust the other players on the floor. It’s just going to be one of those things. It’s new, this whole roster and system is new to all of us, so we’ll take it game by game in terms of figuring out how much we want to go to [Davis] at the 5, and it’ll be a balance.”
So far, they’ve been able to rely heavily on Dwight Howard, who is off to his best start to a season in years, to keep Davis from having to play center too often. This keeps Davis happy, and while it’s not an ideal offensive fit, it’s worked well enough for now. Come playoff time, that may very well have to change, but every game they win without leaning on Davis to play the majority of his minutes at center is huge for the Lakers.
There are also questions on the perimeter around their star duo as they have very little perimeter shot creation available to them. James is the only perimeter player who can consistently create on the perimeter – a bitter irony for the Lakers compared to last season’s roster. In 2018, the Lakers decided to mostly eschew shooting to surround James with ball handlers who could take some of the creation load off his shoulders. The idea was an interesting one, even if the front office happened to choose an awful cast of characters to actually execute that idea.
This year, they’ve swung back the other way, with a roster full of perimeter shooters but very few ball handlers. After sitting out the game against the Clippers, Alex Caruso has been in the Lakers’ rotation for their recent win streak and provides something that none of the other Lakers’ guards can; a secondary creator who can competently dribble and pass. Between Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels, they have no other players who can create a good shot for themselves or a teammate, so Caruso’s inclusion in the nightly rotation has been massively important, even if for just the moments James is off the floor.
The Lakers don’t need a ton of ball handling around James, but having no secondary creators killed them against the Clippers on opening night. Caruso isn’t an all-world point guard, despite what Lakers fans may tell you, but he’s competent, which is a massive step up from the other perimeter players on the roster. At some point, Rajon Rondo will return to the court, which will give the team another ball handler to play with or without James. Rondo comes with a host of other issues, most of them related to defense, which leads many to believe that Caruso is the best option at backup point guard even with a fully healthy Rondo available, but internal politics and Rondo’s standing within the organization may lead Vogel to lean toward Rondo.
Los Angeles’s ball handling issues are very much a regular season, first three quarters problem. They can’t rely on James to create on every single possession in all 82 games of the regular season, so they’ll need Caruso and Rondo to play a role throughout the grind of the season. They run a lot of isolations and post-ups for Davis, which help save James’ energy throughout the game.
“That’s what we have the ability to do,” Vogel said after the team’s 120-101 win over the Hornets on Sunday. “One guy gets going like Anthony does in the first half, LeBron can defer.”
Once crunch time rolls around, both in the last few minutes of regular season games and throughout the playoffs, it’s LeBron James time. The Lakers could still use some creativity in their late-game offense, but they’re generally going to be very effective with James handling the ball on every possession and orchestrating their fleet of shooters and roll men. The shooters and defenders the Lakers can put on the floor are fully actualized when James has the ball in his hands late in the game and there isn’t as much pressure on them to take the creation load off James’ shoulders.
Throughout the first three and a half quarters, however, the Lakers need to find other sources of shot creation, which is why Caruso has been such a revelation for them in recent games. Rondo will help in this area as well, particularly since the Lakers’ offense looks to be particularly simplistic in nature.
As much as it would benefit them, it’s very unlikely that Vogel and his staff are going to implement a motion-based scheme during the regular season; that would have had to happen in training camp leading up to the year. Rather, it’s all about surviving on whatever they can get from the rest of the roster offensively and starving opponents on the other end of the floor, then letting James and Davis take over in the game’s final stanza. Will this approach work in the playoffs? We’ll find out.
Dime’s Martin Rickman contributed reporting to this piece.