For much of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have had a big problem: Falling apart whenever LeBron James goes to the bench.
No, this isn’t being dramatic. This wasn’t just a case of the Lakers being “less good” when their superstar sat. That would be expected. This was about them literally turning into a bad NBA team whenever James wasn’t on the floor, tripping over themselves and spilling leads in borderline-hilarious fashion, like they were Kevin Malone and their advantages were a slow-cooker full of chili, leaving Frank Vogel to proverbially try to scrape things back into pot with some paper by putting James back in for minutes he should have been getting to rest.
This was the book on the Lakers. Survive the minutes where James was on the floor, and opponents knew they could win the rest of the game handily. In the handful of games the Lakers dropped this season, that reality generally was a factor.
From the start of the season until the March, the Lakers had a net rating of -1.8 whenever James was on the bench, meaning that they were outscored by that many points per 100 possessions whenever he sat. That was the only negative rating on the team, but still represented improvement from where the Lakers were up until February, when they posted a -3.8 net rating when James sat.
Getting outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions may not sound that bad, but for one, it was still the only negative off-court net rating on the team, and for context, it is worse than the season-long marks for the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls, highlighting just how much the purple and gold struggled when James wasn’t on the floor.
Recently, though, things have started to shift a bit. Over their last 15 games, the Lakers have actually had a positive net rating with James on the bench, outscoring their opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That’s a massive swing that is slightly inflated by small sample size and the team’s 30-point, James-less victory over the moribund Golden State Warriors, but it still represents a positive trend in the right direction, and for context, is roughly equivalent to where the Utah Jazz have ranked this season.
Nowhere was this newfound quality more prominently on display than in the Lakers’ big win against the Clippers on Sunday, when the team was, strictly based on net rating, never better than the Clippers in the first half than when James was on the bench.
They weren’t just holding their own, they were thriving, a huge factor in their eventual victory.
“Most of the time throughout the entire season, when he’s out of the game, we’ve hit a dud out there on the court,” Kyle Kuzma said after the game when asked about the team’s success while James sat. “It was huge in this type of game, the magnitude of it. It was big.”
Now, again, some of that was small sample size, and the Clippers ravaged the Lakers in the second half without James. That’s all well and good, but the Lakers don’t need to dominate in their James-less minutes in order to be at their best in the playoffs. They just need to be able to hold their own, and lately, against some pretty decent competition, they’ve been at the very least doing that, which should concern other contenders, as it may remove one of the few avenues to beating them.
“We’ve just made strides,” Kuzma said. “That’s what the season is for. It’s 82 games. Our coaching staff says it all the time: Every game is a rehearsal, and it just leads up and leads up, and you can see that growth. I think you saw that tonight.”
One of the things the Lakers have figured out is how to take advantage of Anthony Davis more effectively. Despite what one might assume based on the eye test or narratives, Davis has actually scored more (and more efficiently) per 36 minutes with James off of the floor all year, according to NBA.com. But Davis has been even better lately, scoring nearly 10 more points per 36 minutes with James off the floor than he does with James on, while shooting 11.6% better from the field.
That seems to have come in part from Vogel and the Lakers’ coaching staff figuring out more ways to get Davis the ball in space, whether it’s having him take more threes so that defenses have to come out to guard him on the perimeter — where he can use his quickness to get by them on drives or cuts — or by playing Markieff Morris alongside Davis instead of a traditional big, keeping defenses from building a wall of arms in the paint because of Morris’ gravity keeping them from straying too far from the perimeter.
It has also come from Davis simply appearing more ready to take on the challenge. This isn’t something that can necessarily be directly reflected by metrics, but of late, his postgame comments have undeniably struck the tone of someone who heard all the numbers about how bad the Lakers have been with James off the floor. He appears to be well aware that some of those minutes came with him on the floor, and wants to make sure that he, as the Lakers’ second star, isn’t letting that happen anymore, whether it means locking in just a tad more on defense, or making sure that he’s doing everything in his power to do damage on offense.
“We’re gonna need to be able to play in the playoffs without him a little when he needs his rest,” Davis said. “We’re getting so much better at it.”
Davis said that the Lakers units that play without James are learning plays that the team can run without him in. This is something longtime James observers know has traditionally been a struggle for his teams — how do you learn a whole separate offense that doesn’t fully center on the greatness of the best player in the world, while also fully utilizing him when he plays? — but the Lakers seem to be striking a better balance in recent weeks.
And again, they don’t even need to be great with James off the floor. They just need to be not bad. That they’ve been straight-up good over their last handful of games, against good teams and in a way that seems more structural than it is random is a promising sign for the Lakers’ fortunes.
“Guys have a lot of confidence making shots, we’re taking the challenge defensively when he’s out of the game, and it’s been working,” Davis said. “We’ve all got to step up.”
Lately, they have been, and it has paid dividends for the Lakers. If it continues, it might just make them champions.