Coaching LeBron James is simultaneously a gift and a curse. On one hand, he’s one of the best players in the history of the sport and will thus make your life easier. On the other, he prefers a certain style of play, and doesn’t always buy in if the coach tries anything other than that.
Before negotiations fell through with Tyronn Lue, it seemed like the Lakers understood how best to potentially optimize the situation with James. Now, Frank Vogel has to figure this out in relatively short order, but as he told Joe Vardon of The Athletic, he thinks he has an idea of the best way to balance playing through James in a more structured offense:
Pushed on what schematic plans he has for LeBron, Vogel said “generally, we are looking to bring more structure to what we’re doing.” Vogel declined to say what that means, but here are some navigational buoys to point you in a certain direction.
Lue, in Cleveland, used to demand that other Cavs stars defer to LeBron. Lue drew up the offense so that it ran through LeBron, and, whether or not he brought the ball up the court, LeBron was to set up in the mid-to-high post and distribute or score from there. That’s what Lue told the Lakers he would do if hired.
Lue also wanted Vogel to be on his bench as an assistant and spoke to him about his plans before contract negotiations with the Lakers fell apart.
We saw Lue’s approach to coaching James work. It led to multiple championship appearances and even one ring. If Vogel took something from his discussions with Lue that’s probably good news, because as we all know, Luke Walton’s approach last season was significantly less successful:
Walton explicitly did not set up the Lakers’ offense this way. In Walton’s offense, any of four ballhandlers on the court could get it and go. If the ball made it to LeBron’s hands, great. If not, so be it. LeBron took over the offense on his own, but there was no “structure.” He didn’t love it. Sources close to LeBron said that the lack of structure on offense, and the bad, forced shots some of his younger teammates took, discouraged him.
I would pay a decent amount of money to figure out who exactly James was discouraged by last season. The person who took the most “forced” shots could arguably be Brandon Ingram, but the more disappointing overall player last year was Kyle Kuzma. If anything, Lonzo Ball didn’t shoot enough to be factored into this discussion. I guess there are just some things we’ll never know.
Speculation about James’ least favorite teammate aside, it sounds like Vogel plans to establish a firmer pecking order anyway:
“It’s not this massive innovative approach where we roll out something no one has ever seen before,” Vogel said. “We’re not going to recreate the wheel, but there are small things we can tweak, just like every player on the team, to put him in the best position to utilize his skill set.
“And I would also say it’s maybe less about how I’m using him and more about the environment around him.”
It’ll be interesting to see what this looks like. On one hand, it makes sense not to overthink this and implement a system that mimics Lue’s approach. It was successful and it might be the best way to get consistent buy-in from James. On the other, James is a year older and might not be able to carry the offense as he did in Cleveland. And if he gets hurt with the offense designed only with him in mind, that’s quite a course change that I don’t know if anyone is equipped to deal with.
Vogel did say at his press conference that he had a positive conversation with James, and he doesn’t seem so headstrong that he would refuse to bend a little should James ask him to. Hell, he’s said coaching different players differently is part of his coaching philosophy, and if we’re being real, how Vogel envisions the offense now doesn’t totally matter right now, seeing as we don’t know who else is going to be on the roster.
The best thing here is to wait and see, and then judge that system whenever Vogel rolls it out. He and the Lakers can’t afford to get this wrong, though.