- The Los Angeles Lakers roster will require LeBron James to adapt to a different style of play to make the system work.
- There is scepticism about whether James will adapt because, historically, he doesn’t play at a fast pace or play off the ball much.
- Though the Lakers figure to be a good team, scepticism remains about how all of the pieces will fit together.
After landing LeBron James in free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers put a different-looking team around him, with the hopes of executing a different style than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In signing players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee to join James and their young, talented core, the Lakers decided to add playmaking around James rather than shooting.
Early reports suggested the Lakers also hope James will move to the post more this season. Such a move would not only help the Lakers’ spacing on offence but also ease the burden on James to create as much off the dribble.
With training camp underway, the Lakers have said they plan on playing fast on offence (they were third in pace last year). Head coach Luke Walton hasn’t offered many clues about the team’s half-court offence, but he did say he’d like to see more hard cuts, screening, player and ball movement.
It all sounds good in theory, and with preseason and the regular season rapidly approaching, the NBA world will soon get a chance to see the Lakers’ offence in action. But, on paper, there’s still a significant question about the fit – will James do the things that the Lakers need to make the offence click?
LeBron hasn’t played the way the Lakers want to play.
James told reporters that he envisions the Lakers playing like his Miami Heat teams from 2010-2014.
“I think it will be kind of similar to Miami in a sense of we really got out and started with our defence, and got out and ran,” James said. “You get out and run, you’re able to get down the floor before they set their defence. There’s a lot of good defences here in our league, so to be able to get stops and get out and run, you get down the floor before the defence gets set up.”
Looking back on it, the Heat were known for their transition talent but didn’t consistently get out and run. The Heat never ranked higher than 15th in pace during James’ four-year tenure and never finished in the top 10 in fastbreak points (they were 11th in 2011-12). The Heat did boast elite defences that led to fastbreak opportunities, but they were never quite a run-and-gun team.
The Cavaliers weren’t a fastbreak team, either, though they did quicken in the last two seasons, finishing 16th and 12th in pace.
Throughout James’ career, and particularly in recent years, James has been much more of a methodical, half-court ball-handler than a fastbreak weapon. James’ athleticism, of course, allows him to dominate in transition when such opportunities arise, but he doesn’t play at that speed consistently. James was one of the slowest players in the league last year – his average speed was 3.88 miles per hour, the 10th slowest among players who played at least 1000 minutes, according to the NBA’s tracking data.
So, no, James historically has not liked to play fast. It would be a surprise if that changed in his 16th season, as he approaches 34 years old.
LeBron likes to have the ball.
It’s also fair to question whether James will gladly play off the ball. James will, of course, still be a playmaker and have the ball in his hands a lot – the Lakers aren’t asking for a complete reversal – but in recent years, James has become more ball-dominant than ever.
Last season, James was 10th among all players in average time per “touch” at 6.7 seconds, according to the NBA’s tracking data. The top players were all point guards, which makes sense – point guards bring the ball up the floor and run the offence; of course, they touch it more. James essentially functioned as the Cavs’ point guard last year.
But this isn’t new. In 2016-17, James averaged 6.4 seconds per touch, and that was while sharing the ball with Kyrie Irving. He averaged 5.3 seconds in 2015-16 and 6.5 seconds in 2014-15.
Last season, James wasn’t necessarily a quick decision-maker when it came to taking his shot. According to tracking data, 32% of James’ shots came after seven or more dribbles, 26% occurred after 3-6 dribbles, and 23% were after no dribbles, i.e., a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Likewise, 43.4% of James’ shots came after touching the ball for six seconds or more, 34% were after James touched the ball for 2-6 seconds, and 22% occurred after having the ball for fewer than two seconds.
According to the data, James’ efficiency increased when he held the ball less, posting a ridiculous 75.5% eFG (which takes three-pointers and two-pointers into account) when he touched the ball for two seconds or less.
James is not a ball hog – he’s one of the least selfish players in basketball and one of the best passers. But James likes to play based on matchups. When James has a matchup he thinks he can exploit, he’ll take things into his own hands.
James is such a physical force that it’s hard to make a better game plan than James forcing the defence to react, then making a play.
One league source familiar with James once told Business Insider that it could be difficult to coach James because James’ style of play is often better than any system.
“LeBron will break the system all the time to do what he does,” the source said. “And he does it so well that coaches don’t have the intestinal fortitude to say, ‘[My system is] better.’ Because he’s like, ‘Really? It’s better than that?'”
But for the Lakers to succeed, James will have to change his style a bit. One scout told Yahoo’s Chris Mannix:
“It will be interesting to see how much LeBron is willing to change his style. If he is going to dominate the ball, with this roster, it won’t work. They have a lot of guys who want to dribble. Luke is going to have to work to get them to play together.”
It all boils down to an awkward roster.
Therein lies the confusion about the roster the Lakers built around James. Additional playmaking is good, and if everyone buys in, they have the ball-handlers and athletes to be a true run-and-gun team. But if James has the ball in his hands, defences won’t pay much attention to players like Rondo, Stephenson, or Lonzo Ball. The only real solution is to have James play off the ball more or to have an intricate system of cutting and passing – whether players like James and Rondo buy into such a system remains to be seen.
But former Cavs GM David Griffin said this summer, having James off the ball will only work for so long. In the playoffs, the Lakers will want their best player to have the ball.
“He’s the single most efficient play creator in the playoffs in all of the NBA,” Griffin said. “So because of that, you want him making decisions. You want him creating those opportunities. And you’re not going to create them for a Rondo jump shot. You’re not going to create them for a Lance Stephenson jump shot.”
James’ talent alone should keep the Lakers in the playoff hunt. If any of their young players take the next step and their role players blend in, they should be a scary team in the deep and competitive Western Conference.
But when the Lakers built this team, the NBA world was immediately sceptical of how it can all work. Even with games just around the corner, scepticism remains about how this team will fit together.
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