What the heck are the Lakers doing?
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.
Cleveland also prioritized shooters and offense-minded players ahead of defenders and steadily sunk in the defensive rankings over the past three seasons, bottoming out as the No. 29 defensive efficiency team last season. This became a liability at times, particularly against the juggernaut Warriors.
What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself. Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches. That also follows with the talents of the 6-foot-6 Ball, who showed the ability to be an elite rebounder and defender for a guard in his rookie year.
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.
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 moving to playing more inside and giving up some control of the ball is important as he ages and his athleticism starts to fade.
Maybe the idea is playing in the post on this team will ideally train LeBron for the new challenge. If he can do it with the poor spacing Los Angeles will have next year, he can do it in any system. It’s like a donut on a baseball bat in the on-deck circle.
But I fear the Lakers believe this iteration will work.
It’ll be an uphill battle.
Lebron needn’t be his only team’s playmaker, but he’s arguably the greatest playmaker of all-time. Taking the ball out of his hands is self-defeating in the micro.
In the macro, perhaps that’ll allow him to preserve energy. LeBron reportedly wants to play off the ball more.
If that allows him to expend more energy on defense, it could pay off. The Cavaliers’ defense was awful, and LeBron’s laziness on that end factored both directly and indirectly, setting a tone for his teammates. Given LeBron’s massive offensive burden, that approach made some sense. But it had major drawbacks.
The problem now: Rondo and Stephenson aren’t good enough.
Their defensive reputations far exceed their production anymore. Stephenson has struggled outside Indiana, and Rondo dials it up only in the playoffs.
Rondo remains a plus-passer, and Stephenson brings creativity offensively. But it’ll be harder for both to operate on this spacing-challenged team. And they’ll be taking the ball from LeBron freaking James.
I’m also skeptical this is a massive departure from LeBron’s situation in Cleveland. The Cavs were at their best when surrounding LeBron with specialists. But they also spent enough time last season partnering LeBron with another ball-dominant perimeter player – Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Jordan Clarkson – to expose the failings of those lineups.
The Lakers are definitely prioritizing more defense, and their experiment deserves a chance to unfold. But I’m doubtful.