Over the next few weeks, we’ll be running a series of pieces taking in-depth looks at the most interesting potential LeBron James-led lineups we could see hit the floor next season.
Barring any roster changes, here are the 13 players that Luke Walton could have to mix and match around James come October:
(Editor’s Note: Isaac Bonga has the Lakers’ 15th guaranteed contract but will spend most of his season in the G League, while Alex Caruso and Travis Wear have the team’s pair of two-way deals but are also unlikely to see a ton of time with James).
Let’s start tinkering.
LeBron Lineup One: We need a f---ing playmaker
Players: LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo
It was a late January night in New Orleans last year, and deep within the bowels of the Smoothie King Center, LeBron James was fed up.
The arena’s residents, the Pelicans, had just handed James’ Cavaliers their fifth loss in seven games — a stretch unbecoming of a James-led team, especially one just a half a year removed from winning the NBA Finals. In the midst of his postgame frustration, James called over a handful of Cavs beat reporters and let loose with a profanity-laced diatribe which, in a twist even James might have had trouble forecasting, would prove prophetic to, of all people, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka just 17 months later.
“We need a f---ing playmaker,” James said.
Ask and thou shall receive. A year and a half later and wearing different colored shorts to NBA Summer League games than ever before, James’ wish of more on-ball help was granted by the Maginka genie shortly after the forward committed to the Lakers on a four-year, $154 million deal on July 1st. In the ensuing hours and days after the signing, the Lakers added Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo on one year deals — two longtime LeBron nemeses now tasked with helping Los Angeles win its 17th banner.
The additions of both players have been the cause of some eye-rolling around the league, and deservedly so. Forgetting the questionable clash of personalities, massive question marks remain around how lineups featuring just one of Stephenson or Rondo with James will create consistent clean looks at the basket — much less putting the trio out there at the same time.
What will happen, though, when Walton inevitably puts all three in the game simultaneously? To make this thought exercise ever spicier, we’ll toss in returning Lakers Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the two most adept passers from the returning roster, to cap off a lineup which has already sent Mike D’Antoni into heart palpitations because of the lack of spacing on offense.
Hey, LeBron asked for it. LET’S DO THIS.
Welcome to the “We Need a F---ing Playmaker” experience.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: The reason so many have criticized the Lakers’ moves post the LeBron signing this offseason is pretty obvious. The team just hasn’t added a single above-average shooter this summer. That is likely going to be a problem, because the narrative that surrounding James with shooters is the clearest path to glory is not a myth.
During his most recent stint with the Cavs, the team’s offensive rating almost directly correlated to the amount of treys Cleveland launched.
When Cleveland took — not necessarily made — more threes during James’ tenure, the team performed better offensively (it’s a small sample size, but for the statistically-inclined, the above data indicates an extremely strong correlation: r=.975).
This is what a healthy, spread court looked like when James had the ball for the Cavs within a strong shooting lineup (from the team’s 2016 Championship playoff run against Toronto):
Look how open the lane is for James to attack with Raptors defenders forced to stick on the good to elite shooting prowesses of Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert — the worst shooter on the floor who Demar Derozan still affords little space to beyond the arc on the strong side.
Compare that look to this one, from a late-quarter possession last season against the Pacers:
Larry Nance, Jordan Clarkson (long live the brief 8/24 combo in Cleveland) and George Hill simply do not warrant the type of respect from beyond the arc James’ teammates two years prior did.
That doesn’t just mean the team is going to make less threes — it means the defense can cheat off the perimeter and load up the paint to defend the rim against the man who needs two to three bodies in front of him at all times to be contained. James can wreak havoc against the first coverage by attacking the rim with space to operate; he’s limited to a midrange isolation player, albeit an effective one, against the latter.
Look how far off Marcus Smart is willing to play off Clarkson on this possession during the Cavs’ Conference Finals matchup with the Celtics.
That might be a little extreme from Smart, and Clarkson surprisingly nails the shot he missed the vast majority of the time last year, but the fact that Boston is able to load up the paint with four fully engaged bodies before James has the chance to create a truly positive look for his team is striking.
Enter the career 3-point percentages of the four Lakers James (career 34.4 percent from deep) would share the court with next year in this scenario, keeping in mind the league average from deep was 36.2 percent last season.
Brandon Ingram: 32.9 percent.
Lonzo Ball: 30.5 percent.
Rajon Rondo: 30.9 percent.
Lance Stephenson: 30.3 percent.
Yowza. Right away, you can see the fundamental issue with this lineup: nobody can really shoot the ball. That’s going to leave offensive possessions featuring this group looking at least as cramped as the aforementioned Cleveland lineup from last year did.
So this lineup won’t be able to score playing out of the traditional spread pick and roll or isolation-heavy systems James is used to playing within.
In other words, for this group to sniff offensive success, LeBron James is going to have to play a style of basketball he has never played before — one that involves creative, smart and nonstop off-ball movement and is heavily dependent on James ceding control of the rock for long stretches.
He’s never done it before, but he’s never quite played with a lineup like, well, whatever this is, has he?
Ingram, Ball, Stephenson and Rondo all played point guard (or quasi-point) for long stretches last season, and all of them are clearly capable of making plays. We’ll focus on Ball and Ingram more in the next installment where we’ll dive into the Lakers’ “Death Lineup”, so let’s lock in on what the additions of Stephenson and Rondo mean for James, and, more broadly, for this team’s outlook for the year.
Rondo’s passing brilliance has been well documented, but despite playing stretches alongside his point guard teammate Jrue Holiday in New Orleans last year to the tune of a solid +3.4 net rating with the duo on the court last season (per NBA.com), the Laker version of Rondo in this lineup will be forced to play off the ball a lot next to guys who have never approached Holiday’s uber-competent 36 percent 3-point shooting. Rondo used 36.8 percent of his shooting possessions as the ballhandler in pick and rolls last season, per Synergy. That number is bound to shrink this year, forcing him to spend more time off the ball.
His performance doing so inspires more confidence than Stephenson’s. Despite his horrible reputation and low career percentage as a marksman, Rondo’s 3-point percentage has actually been right around league average over the last three seasons, which forced defenses to afford the point guard slightly less breathing room last year.
Still, largely because of his career reputation as an impotent shooter, defenders guarding Rondo, often flat-out ignore him when he’s more than one pass away from the ball, choosing to clog up the interior in help over surrendering a semi-contested Rondo three. When he’s the worst or second-worst shooter on the floor, Rondo can afford to pass up those shots. In this lineup, he will have to take them, for better or worse.
Rondo’s basketball IQ is off the charts, and he leverages his high intelligence to make up for his limitations. He’s something of a basketball savant; he often knows where his teammates should be on the court better than they do, and by all accounts has morphed into a tremendous leader, particularly to younger players in recent years.
Yes, Rondo was hard to coach at times for Doc Rivers, and Rick Carlisle couldn’t stand Rondo to DNP-CD levels, but all signs indicate he’s moved past his feuding-with-head-coaches phase and into more of a mentorship role over the last few seasons. Granted, he’s also moved past the stage where he was almost single-handedly going toe to toe with the James-led Heat in 2012, but that off-court stuff matters, especially to a young team.
Defensively, Rondo is challenged. Some of it is self-inflicted — he didn’t show much of an inclination to fight hard through screens in New Orleans, and for his basketball genius he sure falls asleep a lot off the ball — but much of it is physical. Of any player in this lineup, he is the one I’d be the most concerned about switching one through five with — he can’t stay in front of speedy point guards, and I’m skeptical he’d be able to hold his weight guarding fours and fives.
Given that defensive switchability would be a crucial tenet of this lineup, this deficiency above all others may be its death knell.
The Lakers are going to be on national television a lot this year. That is legitimately a good thing that I am actually bringing up here. “National TV Rondo” — the idea that the point guard plays hard only in games broadcast to a larger audience — has been a running joke going back to his early Celtics days.
It is also not a lie. Playoff Rondo is a thing; the Pelicans were 2.4 points per 100 possessions better with him off the court during regular season and 6.9 better with him on it during the playoffs. New Orleans was slightly worse defensively with him on the court in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the team was 7.3 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the court in the playoffs. That’s an increase so stark it’s the equivalent of the gap between the seventh-best Milwaukee Bucks offense and the league worst Phoenix Suns offense last regular season.
That alone makes Rondo a more viable option than his counterpart here, Stephenson. The former Pacer is most infamously known for his strange, adversarial, and, most notably, extremely one-sided “rivalry” with James. He’s also known for passes like these:
That was fun to watch. I guess?
That video actually isn’t a horrible metaphor for Stephenson’s game: there’s a lot going on, it’s extremely confusing, it can be fun as hell to watch, but, ultimately, it results in a contested fastbreak T.J. Leaf missed layup.
His work off the ball leaves a lot to be desired; when it’s bad, it’s a trainwreck, and when it’s good, it feels like an accident.
There’s no excuse for the shockingly high number of times Stephenson didn’t read an opportunity for a backcut properly or stranded himself in no-man’s land in the short weakside corner on the pick-and-roll. Defenses won’t respect him anyway, but standing at least close to behind the arc waiting for a pass increases the likelihood his defender lapses and closes out too hard off Stephenson’s catch, leaving the man who was Born Ready with a window of opportunity to careen towards the rim and make something happen.
Stephenson actually isn’t as bad as he looks in spot up situations (51st percentile last season, per Synergy), but, man, defenses are going to ignore him in this lineup. Defenders can justify creeping out a little further than they should to protect against the shooting of Ingram, James, Rondo and Ball (whose jumpshot I continue to have an irrationally high confidence in).
The same calculus just doesn’t work for Lance. Every time he launches a jumper, it’s a win for the defense, and if the ball isn’t going to be in his hands, that is an extremely troubling sign for Walton.
Stephenson also has never proven himself outside the friendly confines of Indianapolis at any point over his career, and forgetting even this smorgasbord of a lineup, I don’t really see a great fit on the court for Stephenson on this roster.
Play him with any of the touch-heavy James, Rondo or Ball (yes, I know that Ball doesn’t need the rock in his hands to thrive and is not a ball-dominant guard, but he does need the ball at least briefly to work his assist magic) and Stephenson is more likely than not to look lost. He’s the most questionable signing of this offseason by far, and that’s before you go down the James-Stephenson YouTube wormhole.
Realistically, it makes no sense to have him out there with this lineup, but hey, LeBron needed a f---ing playmaker, and we gave him a f---ing playmaker.
How in the world could this group manage any kind of offensive proficiency, then? By getting really, really creative.
The pure basketball genius of James with the ball in his hands could be enough to mitigate many of the fundamental issues with this team, and particularly of this lineup. Watch how LeBron quarterbacks this late-quarter possession against the Pacers from the playoffs:
It looks simple, but that’s a breathtaking play by James, who creates a basic layup for Nance directly out of this situation:
Like Tom Brady going through his reads as his offensive line comes crashing backwards, James sizes up the limited spacing available to him here as the clock winds down and literally throws Nance open to beat the coverage. With the spacing so tight, imagine Stephenson or Ingram filling in for Nance on that possession, ducking in to finish off the play.
Would either player — particularly Stephenson — display the discipline Nance does here to wait out James’ genius? I’m not so sure. Opportunities like this will present themselves, though, if the team is willing to wait them out.
While being alert off the ball will be essential to whatever potential this lineup possesses, weakside players are going to have to be extra attentive, even when they’re two or three passes away. Love did a decent job of this during the playoffs, like his ultimately futile backcut here:
Recognizing the combination of flustered and disengaged Terry Rozier appears to be in help after pulling off the scram switch with Al Horford against James in the post, Love seizes on the opportunity to cut backdoor straight to the rim.
LeBron’s pass gets knocked away because of Jaylen Brown’s instincts and some poor timing, but that backcut will lead to a positive look nine times out of ten. That seems like a logical role for Ingram coming out of the weakside corner or wing — the slender scorer was above league average off cuts last year (51st percentile, per Synergy), and he’ll continue to get better as he keeps transforming his body and improve at finishing through contact. It’s easy to imagine Rondo or Ball making similar plays and looking to make the extra pass and dish off cuts like these. It’s unclear who the best option to throw the ball to out of the interior would be, but getting to the rim in the first place is a good start.
Against switching defenses, Stephenson, Ball and Rondo can leverage their lack of gravity into good looks for teammates by setting off-ball screens. Look what Nance — elite at making plays like these given his limitations, but a player with arguably less gravitational pull on the court than any of these current Lakers — does here to free up an open corner three for his teammate:
Nance knows that Trevor Booker is ignoring him in the short corner to focus on James’ drive, and uses that knowledge to his advantage. Because the Pacers are switching, Booker — at this point completely oblivious to the whereabouts of his man — has no idea he should switch out once Nance decides to set a backscreen on Stephenson (this possession wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Lance’s DPOY chances last season), and Jeff Green is available for a wide open triple to end the quarter.
The issue, of course, is that that player in the corner is Jeff Green, and not someone like Kyle Korver or even George Hill. The Pacers, or any smart defense, can live with Jeff Green corner threes, and they’ll certainly be more than willing to watch any of these Lakers hoist up the same shot on possession after possession. We’re grasping at straws here, though, looking for answers to how this team could crack the self-inflicted code set up by its own front office after the LeBron signing this summer.
Possessions like these are probably the best offensive outcomes they could ask for with this lineup, and that’s a bit troubling considering how much of a slog each proved to be just to create decent looks at the rim. For all the brilliant passing and playmaking on the court at the same time, the We Need a F---ing Playmaker Lineup is going to have to play ugly to succeed. That’s a shame, and likely the reason why I would be shocked if this group of five ever actually saw the floor together a ton (Josh Hart might make more sense instead of Stephenson, but even that wouldn’t totally solve things).
They’ll have to muck things up defensively, too. Ostensibly, this lineup could switch one through five, but in practice I’m not so sure. Rondo and Stephenson in particular give me pause — Rondo because he’ll struggle to both stay in front of speedy guards and hold his own in the post and Stephenson because, well, he’s Stephenson. He’d have to show more defensive engagement off the ball to switch onto every position than he ever has to make it work.
The other caveat here: LeBron is technically the defensive center in this lineup. He’s never shown an inclination to bang bodies and rebound with fives over the course of his career, and at age 33 it’s unclear why he’d want to start getting comfortable doing that now, particularly given the care he’s put into maintaining his body as he gets deeper into his basketball lifespan. Could an engaged and fresh James play center for long stretches of games? Sure. I have trouble believing, though, that he would be engaged or fresh for long if he spent too much time doing it.
I’ve been fighting the urge to say “there’s only one basketball” so, so strongly throughout this, but as much as I hate hearing that damn expression, I keep coming back to it when I think about this lineup. Surrounding James with just one non-shooter last year made life much more difficult on offense for the Cavs. If Walton ever turns to this lineup, 2.5 of James’ teammates will be ignored beyond the arc at all times.
Perhaps illogically, I’m fascinated to see how James will react to that situation. Even outside this uber-specific lineup type, will James be willing to cede control of the offense on the majority of possessions, transforming into the most overqualified off-ball slasher of all time (85th percentile scoring as an off-ball cutter last season in the playoffs, per Synergy) and letting Rondo, Ball, and Stephenson do the heavy lifting? Based on the way this team has been constructed, that may be the fundamental question facing the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers.
And as good as he can be as a slasher, just 2.7 opercent of LeBron’s scoring opportunities came via an off-ball cut during last season’s playoffs, per Synergy. At no point in his career has he proven willing to give up control over his offense to take advantage of what have proven to be easier, more advantageous scoring chances because, well, he’s LeBron freaking James — the most dangerous player in the league with the ball in his hands.
It is also true, though, that at no point in his career has James ever had passers around him as talented as Rondo and Ball, and, for all their shooting deficiencies, that does count for something. Imagine how dangerous an active off-ball player James could be if he could trust Ball and Rondo to make the right play:
James recognizes that Korver’s cut opens up space at the top of the key, makes the right read on the fill, and already has a head of steam going as he collects Love’s pass on the move.
LeBron James standing still with the ball in his hands is the most dangerous player on the floor. James catching on the move like this is the most dangerous player in league history, a freight train-Tesla hybrid; the most intelligent passer in basketball moving at warp speed towards the rim produced 1.5 points per possession in the playoffs, per Synergy. That will work.
I cherry picked that possession, of course, featuring Cleveland’s best shooting lineup from last year: James, Korver, Love, Smith, and Hill. There’s space on the court there that will simply vanish if Walton has the cajones to actually put these five guys on the court together.
The larger point remains, though. The fact that this five man lineup would have a puncher’s chance of working in today’s NBA is a testament to the sheer offensive brilliance of LeBron James.
The Lakers acquired the most valuable asset in the league on July 1. Subsequently, they did not add the kind of talent around him which has historically made James-led teams successful. That doesn’t mean that it can’t work this season, but it does mean that creating positive looks offensively will be a slog at times, and require each player on the court to think the game in a way none of James, Stephenson, Rondo, Ingram or Ball has ever thought it before.
You get the feeling the Lakers didn’t have to make it this hard on themselves. Smaller-name shooters (run it back with Wayne Ellington, anyone?) were out there on the cheap three weeks ago.
They’re gone now. This is the path the team chose to follow, and everyone involved is going to have to get really creative to make it work.
They’re going to need some f---ing playmakers.