The Lakers built their roster this offseason with a mandate to surround LeBron James with playmakers. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, and Lance Stephenson were all supposed to help lessen the creative burden that James had been saddled with in previous seasons.
Due to injury (Ingram, Rondo) or simply ineffectiveness (Stephenson), the Lakers are left with only one of that quartet to help run the offense when James is off the floor for the upcoming road trip. Head coach Luke Walton has said that he will have to stagger James and Ball with Ingram missing at least the next two games with a left ankle injury, giving Ball a chance to spread his wings in a way he hasn’t yet been asked to do this season.
It’s time for Lonzo Ball to have his sophomore coming out party.
Note the word “sophomore” in the above sentence. Ball had a remarkably effective rookie season, though the bulk of that value came on the defensive end. His on-off numbers haven’t been as impressive this year, but this is his chance to show out now that he’ll have full reign over the offense for significant stretches of time.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Lonzo has played 1,419 non-garbage time possessions this season, and only 203 of them have come without LeBron on the floor. That’s about 14 percent of his playing time. The Lakers have been pretty terrible in those minutes, getting outscored by 21.2 points per 100 possessions. However, the only five-man lineup that has gotten any meaningful playing time with Lonzo at the point and LeBron not in the game is Ball-Stephenson-KCP-Josh Hart-JaVale McGee. That is the funky Los Angeles second unit with Ball in Rondo’s place, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t really work when any of its components are tweaked.
So how can Lonzo flip the script and make the Lakers a good team, or at least an average team, when he is on the court without LeBron?
First, he’ll have to continue his recent aggressive streak, but ideally with better finishing. Lonzo will probably be playing alongside some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Beasley, Svi Mykhailiuk, Tyson Chandler, and McGee. Other than Beasley, those players all have low usage rates and limited playmaking skills, putting the onus on Lonzo to create. It would behoove the Lakers to prioritize spacing in order for Lonzo to get into the paint more easily, particularly since none of those second unit players really attack the basket. Getting Moe Wagner some minutes could be a good idea.
Lonzo has a lot of experience playing next to KCP, who he shared the court with for 75 percent of his minutes last year, and the two of them were essentially a net neutral pairing in that time together, so there’s a good foundation to work with.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, all of Ball’s other two-man pairings have been pretty awful this year (when you remove LeBron from the floor), except for Beasley, which makes sense. Lonzo doesn’t like to hold the ball for too long and can benefit from a release valve to create some offense, and Beasley fits that to a tee.
This is also an opportunity for Lonzo to flex his muscles running the pick and roll. Last year, pick and rolls with Lonzo as the ball-handler generated 0.63 points per possession, which placed him in the 18th percentile in the league. That figure has risen to 0.83 this year, which is almost league average. Ball will have shooters around him and the alternating duo of Chandler and McGee to provide fantastic screen-setting or gravity as roll men, so it could be an opportunity for the Lakers to run some simple actions and allow Ball to use his instincts to make plays.
Nevertheless, Lonzo has never run a lot of pick-and-rolls, and that’s because he’s better improvising, like when he’s in transition. He thrives when the players around him also make quick decisions, so if all else fails, pushing the pace could be a good strategy to increase his effectiveness.
If Walton really wants Lonzo to succeed, he could consider doing a more aggressive staggering of the starting lineup, allowing Lonzo to still play with Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart, who are capable of running the floor with him. LeBron can carry lineups that include some of the more limited players on the Los Angeles roster; allowing Lonzo to play with a little more talent would make his job easier.
The important outcome of all this is that Lonzo will be playing more minutes. As our friends at Lonzo Wire pointed out, the team is 8-1 when Lonzo plays at least 30 minutes, and 12-1 when he plays at least half of the fourth quarter. He is too good to keep on the bench, and getting him on the floor more, even if it comes when LeBron is resting, gives the Lakers more opportunities to benefit from Ball’s unique skills.
We haven’t seen Lonzo be the primary creator for Los Angeles in a while. The reasons we’re about to aren’t ideal, but it will be fun to see how he rises to the challenge.