El Segundo — On Friday, as the Los Angeles Lakers were scrimmaging during training camp, Lonzo Ball got a rebound, a routine enough play.
What he did next was not a routine play for most of the NBA though: Launch a full-court pass right on the money to two teammates streaking down on the break that would’ve allowed them to easily glide to the basket and score.
The problem? Neither player was ready, and both were nearly hit in the head by the pass as it resulted in a turnover. In order for the Lakers to be at their best this season, head coach Luke Walton said the team — and by extension, those two players he declined to name — are going to have to be ready for plays like that.
“We want Zo making those passes now to teach the guys that we get out and run every time. And keep your head up, because it’s not just Zo. If you cut and you’re open, or you get out and you run, if (Rajon) Rondo has it or LeBron (James) has it, they’re gonna hit you too,” Walton said.
He says the adjustment comes more quickly for some players than others.
”There is no way to put a timetable on it,” Walton said. “I mean (Kyle Kuzma) played with Zo in summer league and after the first game quickly realized ‘if I just quickly run out I’m going to get 10 extra points per game,’ so it’s just different for everybody.”
Everyone on the Lakers is going to have to get used to those full-court flings, because as Walton and James have discussed throughout training camp, they’re key to the Lakers’ desire to play as fast as humanly possible this season.
And it’s not just full-court passes that Walton is hoping can key the Lakers’ break. To really goose the pace, he knows the Lakers will have to go small, which is why they’re already doing unorthodox things like trying 6’9 Kyle Kuzma at center.
“We want to be a positionless team, and there’s going to be times where we’re all playing different positions,” said James, who said he sees himself and Brandon Ingram as guys who can play all five positions on the floor. James also thinks that Michael Beasley can play everything but point guard, while Kyle Kuzma can fit as a center, power forward and small forward.
If James is right about that many teammates having a chimera-esque ability to be multiple things at once, it would unlock the Lakers’ full potential as a versatile, like-sized team with waves of athletes that can guard nearly every position.
However, if the Lakers want to be able to play those lineups, James knows there is one thing they’ll have to do.
“We just have to help rebound,” James said, and his coach agrees.
“It’s the only way (playing small) will work for us. If we can’t rebound the basketball then we’ll have to get away from positionless basketball and go back to good ol’ solid one through five,” Walton said.
The Lakers are in a good position to avoid going to tons of traditional lineups just yet, because as our own Pete Zayas noted over the summer, they might have the best rebounding backcourt in the NBA, with multiple guys that can help on the glass and then push the break.
Among players that NBA.com classifies as guards — among which LeBron and Ingram are listed, perhaps best demonstrating their versatility — the Lakers have five of the top 20 guards in rebounds per game from last season.
Joining James (who ranked second with 8.6 rebounds) and Ingram (10th, 5.3) are Ball (fourth, 6.9), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (12th, 5.2) and Lance Stephenson (14th, also 5.2).
If just taking into account numbers from after the All-Star Break, Josh Hart would have ranked fifth with 6.8, and Rondo would have ranked 21st with 4.9.
Suffice to say, the Lakers have a lot of guards who can help on the boards, so if the can force misses, they should be all right on defense, even if they go small. And in order to force those misses, the team is planning to be ready to switch all over the floor defensively, something James is already thinking about how they can best succeed at.
“You have to be physical at the point of attack and then you have to communicate throughout the whole possession,” James said.
So, the Lakers’ small-ball success checklist, for those of you keeping score at home, is as follows:
- Gang rebound
- Play physical defense when switching
- Communicate like crazy
And for Walton, determining whether the Lakers are succeeding in those goals isn’t just a game-by-game decision based on feel and the eye test, but part of a long-term discussions with the Lakers’ analytics department.
“If we’re getting hurt on post-ups from another team’s big, but are outscoring them on the other end by spreading them out and having their five man having to guard Kuz or something like that ... We’re always having those debates and we use our analytical department to help prove one way or another,” Walton said.
The Lakers surely already have an early indication about the way some of these experiments will end, even without any analytics to study over before their first preseason game, but whatever positionless combinations ultimately work, the Lakers are going to get their fastest team on the floor. Players getting hit in the head by outlet passes are going to get sat down if they don’t adjust, because playing fast is at the core of how Walton and the front office envision successful teams playing.
”I think it’s fun to space the floor and have skilled players all over the place,” Walton said. “To me that’s the way the game is meant to be played.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.