EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The first debate to engulf the conversation around the Los Angeles Lakers one game into the season has been how much ballhandling duties LeBron James should take on, and which point guards — if any — should flank him in the team’s various lineups.
The team’s starters for the first game featured no traditional ballhandlers, with Avery Bradley serving as the point-guard-sized player for the team and James taking on the bulk of the ballhandling duties. Head coach Frank Vogel says that lineup will start again when the Lakers host the Utah Jazz in their home opener on Friday night, but has also made waves with his comments on how much Rajon Rondo will play and/or start with James.
But what does a point guard need to fit with James in the superstar’s own mind? He demurred when asked about exactly that at the team’s shootaround.
“I don’t know. I think what’s been very important and very key to the amount of winning I’ve done in my career is the coaching staff putting the players that complement each other on the floor,” James said.
So then maybe it’s more important to get a sense of what types of players Vogel feels fit best alongside his star — who he made it clear at shootaround that he still expects to be the “primary ballhandler” after his remarks were misinterpreted by some the day prior — in the various lineups that share the floor with James.
“Well he’s definitely got to be a spot-up shooter because LeBron is going to have the ball in his hands a lot, but he’s got to share some of the load too in terms of initiating the offense and being a ballhandler out there,” Vogel said. “It’s to be able to play with or without the basketball.”
The problem for the Lakers may be that they’re fairly light on players that can do both. Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels showed that they are varying degrees of shooters in the team’s first game, while simultaneously displaying that game managers, they are not. Alex Caruso didn’t play that night, but during the preseason his performance emphasized that he is much better in an off-ball role.
The only point guard the Lakers have that can serve as a traditional game manager, then, might be Rajon Rondo, who missed the team’s first game and will be a game-time decision against the Jazz. But is he really enough of a floor spacer to be able to fulfill the off-ball component of playing next to James? As a career 31.5% 3-point shooter — who to be fair made 35.9% of his threes last season — it’s not clear if defenses respect Rondo enough to not simply create a different set of problems than they faced in game one.
“We call that gravity, how much gravity a guy brings to the table,” Vogel said. “Troy Daniels and Danny Green are going to open up a lot of space just by being on the floor. Rondo is not guarded that way typically, but Rondo makes them pay when they don’t honor him.
“He’s going to do that even more so this year than ever. So there is a difference.”
But does that lack of gravity worry Vogel, even if Rondo is as willing and capable of a shooter now as he claims? It doesn’t sound like it.
“It would be a concern for me if a guy wasn’t a 3-point shooter at all. But that’s not the case with Rajon,” Vogel said.
There are also more ways that a point guard can help a team than shooting. Yes, even on a LeBron team. For example, Rondo had some ideas at practice on Thursday.
“Being able to get ‘Bron out on the break,” Rondo said. “That’ll be big. If I can get the ball and let him run the wing, nobody in the league can stop him.”
The image of James as a freight train on the wing during a fast break is surely an enticing one for the Lakers, and giving him the opportunity to do that is something James agrees that Rondo can bring to the Lakers.
“He’s a natural point guard and he’s been able to do that his whole career by getting the ball up to guys in transition and allowing them to kind of attack before the defense sets,” James said. “We missed that in game one, having another one of our quarterbacks out on the floor. So I’m looking forward to that.”
So despite some analytics painting them as a far-from-effective pairing, James doesn’t seem too concerned about any potential fit issues with Rondo, offering a fairly illuminating answer about how he sees the game when asked if there has been any other growth or evolution in the way he and Rondo fit together since last year.
”Just our friendship, which is going to help our game,” James said. “Continuing to learn each other, hang with each other off the floor, things of that nature. We’re two guys who at the end of the day we just want to win and put our teammates in a position to be successful. We always think about us last when it comes to the game, so that’s what it’s all about.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.