LeBron James will start at point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers next season, per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, and this seems like more of a reflection of their weird roster than a signal that there will be a massive shift in his game.
Functionally, James has always been a point guard. He is most comfortable on offense when directing his teammates from the top of the key. This, by the way, is what separates him from some of the other greatest scorers in NBA history — armed with a photographic memory and deep knowledge of opponents’ tendencies, he can dominate a game by picking defenses apart and creating easy shots. Whether he or a teammate is taking them is often immaterial.
It is also what can make James complicated to build around. He needs enough playmaking help that he doesn’t feel overburdened, but he wants to take full control of the offense whenever he feels like it. Last year’s Lakers made the mistake of surrounding him with teammates who needed the ball in their hands and couldn’t space the floor, which was a predictable disaster. The strategy, however, was a direct response to the problem James had in his last year in Cleveland, where he had shooters around him but didn’t have secondary creators he trusted (and many of those shooters were defensive liabilities). Next season, Los Angeles needs Frank Vogel’s coaching staff to construct a rotation that maximizes James’ talent and the team’s collective potential. That will be hard.
Fortunately for Vogel, Anthony Davis is an ideal superstar teammate for James. He does not require a ton of isolation possessions, but is effective enough in those situations to draw double-teams. He is devastating as a roll man and can pick and pop out to the 3-point line. On defense, he covers ground like few others in the league and makes up for a ton of mistakes. He and James will make each other better, and Davis can be the undisputed No. 1 option when James is on the bench or unavailable. If only the rest of the Lakers were so malleable.
The core issue is that DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo are poor defenders who are accustomed to having the ball in their hands. Kuzma has the reputation of a shooter, but made only 30.3 percent of his 3s last season. Rondo made 35.9 percent, but does not have the reputation and is reluctant to fire away. Most of his 3-point attempts are unguarded. Cousins shot a miserable 27.4 percent from 3-point range in 30 games with the Golden State Warriors; even if you assume that he will be more accurate (and healthier) as a Laker, every opposing team will be happy to see him on the perimeter instead of in the paint. Several Lakers, including his former teammate Davis, recruited Cousins to sign his $3.5 million deal, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and I doubt their pitch was about sparse touches and doing the little things.
I have already suggested that the Lakers should put James, Davis, Cousins and Rondo on load-management plans. Beyond that, Vogel’s staff will have to try to find lineups that have enough shooting without sacrificing playmaking and defense. They are much better equipped to do that than they were last season, especially after the reported addition of Avery Bradley, but there are lots of egos to manage and variables to consider. By starting James at point guard, it will make it easier to limit his minutes sharing the court with Rondo. (In their 602 minutes together last season, the Lakers were outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions and made 31.5 percent of their 3s.) I wonder, though, who the other starters will be.
According to Yahoo Sports, the Lakers plan to start Danny Green at shooting guard. Davis is obviously the third starter. Was Cousins promised a starting role? Are they willing to ask him or Kuzma to come off the bench? If they go with a James-Green-Kuzma-Davis-Cousins lineup, Green is the only one who is used to defending guards and doesn’t care about creating offense. If Vogel plans to install an unpredictable, Warriors-like offensive system, then the abundance of playmakers would be a feature. If he plans to play LeBron-ball, then it is a bug. Kuzma might improve on defense, and James might give more effort on that end than he has in recent years; should neither happen, this lineup will be vulnerable against wing scorers and pick-and-rolls involving Cousins.
Starting Caruso or Bradley in place of Kuzma or Cousins would be an elegant solution, though Caruso would take James out of the nominal point guard position and potentially alienate Rondo. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope theoretically makes some sense, too, and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker is an interesting down-the-road option if he develops a 3-point shot. I could even see Jared Dudley making a case for minutes alongside the stars; last year in Brooklyn, the veteran almost never looked to score but was always putting people in the right place.
I’m interested in who the Lakers start insofar as it is a microcosm of the coaching staff’s broader challenge: creating an environment where players trust that, whenever they’re on the court, Vogel will make sure that they’re in position to play their game. They also have to trust that decisions about the rotation are made with only team success — and definitely not politics — in mind. There isn’t a team in the NBA on which every player is happy with his role, but the best ones win enough that the unhappy guys tend to accept that grumbling about it won’t get them anywhere. I am not sure whether James’ positional shift will be good or bad in this regard.
Bringing the ball up every possession and running an offense is hard work. I wonder, then, if the Lakers will reduce his minutes to make up for the extra load, thereby giving his teammates more opportunities to make plays with him on the bench. I also wonder if James will change his approach. In his first season in Los Angeles, his usage rate was virtually identical to his last season in Cleveland, and he attempted a career-high 20.4 field goals per 36 minutes. If he significantly tilts his game toward facilitating for others, perhaps it would send a message to the rest of the team: Everyone has to sacrifice.
There is another, less rosy way to view this, however. After the Lakers hired Vogel, he said he wanted to “bring more structure” to the offense, and The Athletic’s Joe Vardon reported that James didn’t like that former coach Luke Walton had empowered all of their non-centers to push the ball after defensive rebounds. It is possible that making James the point guard is just another way to make sure everything revolves around him. This is not an inherently bad thing, given his brilliance, but it does make it tricky for guys like Cousins and Rondo. Like the Lakers in general, Point LeBron has upside, but, with the cast of characters around him, nobody knows exactly what this will look like.
Source: James Herbert