With eyes that squint across the floor not because of age, but rather due to meticulous focus, and sweat pouring freely toward his brow, LeBron James watches his team from the bench. A towel draped on his lap, his sneakers in cement and a scoreboard that looms over him, doubling as an alarm clock.
For James, this is a rare chance for solace, to catch his breath. A prospering oasis in a basketball desert. For the Lakers and the fanbase however, it’s a scene that often signals impending doom.
Throughout his career, all of James’ teams have all attempted to crack the equation. Coaches, rosters and star players alike have all unsuccessfully tried to keep the boat afloat while their captain leaves the helm. It’s less a conundrum than a consistent wound that never quite heals. And the result is always the same.
In every one of the 18 seasons he’s notched on his belt, James’ teams have outscored the opposition (usually by a healthy margin) when he plays, and consistently nosedived when he does not.
His last two seasons with the Lakers were the most recent examples, as despite winning it all just a year ago and boasting a co-star in Anthony Davis, the team has also failed to buck the trend of looking brutal without LeBron on the floor.
This was on full display in their most recent first-round exit at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, where the team was a +4.8 with LeBron on the floor, but a record-scratching -46.9 in the minutes where he caught his breath, according to Cleaning the Glass. Even with the injuries that plagued the team accounted for, this was a disastrous outcome that likely played heavily into their recent makeover to push the roster more towards offense.
With the additions of a usage-rate sponge like Russell Westbrook, multiple shooters, and the return of a healthy version of Anthony Davis, this Lakers’ team may be on the precipice of not only surviving the minutes in which James is absent, but potentially winning them. At least if every building block falls seamlessly into place, that is.
Let’s take a look at just a few potential lineup combinations that head coach Frank Vogel and his staff could have at their disposal when aiming to accomplish something previously thought impossible: Not drowning when LeBron is taking a breather.
Due to the many moves the Lakers’ front office made this offseason, the team will have far more variety in terms of the styles they can play on a game-to-game basis compared to last year.
Take the following lineup. When using BBall-Index’s nifty lineup creator tool, we can craft a potential five-man unit (that does not include James) that could do one particular thing very well — attack the rim.
As seen by their talent percentiles (which compares their individual and collective ability in said area versus other players around the league), this possible second-unit lineup is rich with players who are able to get the rim at an extremely high level. In particular, it features Russell Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker, who are two of the best in self-creating drives to the basket.
This is an extremely useful skill for a group, not only due to the usual success that comes with getting more shots from the most efficient area of the floor, but also in terms of generating easy points via free throws. This could draw out extra time for James to rest up over the course of the game — and the year — in the process.
Last season, the Lakers’ offensive rating was nearly seven points worse when James was not on the floor due to their inability to generate offense in the half-court. However, with this group’s ability to get the cup (98th percentile) as well as being adequate in other areas thanks to Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony’s spacing, this could be an exciting breakneck option if the team needs to jumpstart their offense when things begin to slog.
Anthony Davis (in space)
Although it’s unlikely that we’ll often see lineups that do not feature one of James or Westbrook on the floor to help facilitate, the Lakers can now more easily build a group around Davis to allow him to thrive as the focal point.
After reportedly agreeing to play more center this upcoming season, and spending a year shooting more from the perimeter than the interior, Davis could be due for a big bounce back season with additional spacing around him. Spacing this configuration could provide.
With Davis at center, the Lakers can surround him with four players who ranked in the 78th percentile or better last season when it came to spacing talent (aka off-ball, difficulty adjusted 3-point shooting proficiency and volume).
This level of perimeter shooting and slotting would theoretically allow for far more paint looks for Davis, as well as less double-teams. The latter was something he saw more of last season given the sporadic shooting from his teammates.
Kendrick Nunn’s ability to space and get to the rim, as well as play-make, could make him a dynamic spread pick and roll partner for Davis as well, in turn creating more roll-man opportunities for Davis, as well as easier reads to open teammates who are more primed to take advantage from deep.
Shoot, rinse, pass and repeat
During James’ tenure with the team, the Lakers have struggled mightily in both consistently creating offense and shooting effectively when he’s been off the floor.
Westbrook’s inclusion should help tremendously with the former, and thanks to the shooters they now have in tow, they can craft a group with the ability to catch fire even without James. This would have been a blasphemous suggestion this past season.
With a blistering 96th percentile spacing talent rank for this lineup, coupled with legitimate playmaking from three separate sources, this could prove to be one of the better “shoot us back into a game” combinations Vogel could lean on if a team packs the paint. Although the defense with this group will be suspect, there is enough scoring punch where the deficit could be simply overlooked by the firepower on the other end.
Due to their ability to both space and defend, players like Marc Gasol and Kent Bazemore could end up being invaluable for the survivability rate for this individual lineup, as well as being universal building blocks that slot in for most groups this upcoming season, serving as the necessary glue guys that will help grease wheels as well as push them in motion over the course of 82 games.
If the other aforementioned lineups were the angsty teen version of Lakers’ lineups, then this one is the buttoned-up adult. The tax-paying, jaywalking-law-abiding, Shins-listening, non-James’ rotation if you will. And also, it will likely be the most used non-James group.
Outside of a player like Nunn, who himself is one the more well-rounded offensive players on the team, this potential group drips of experience and versatility.
Defensively, they can hang, and most likely even switch against most groups thanks to their length and athleticism. This ability will certainly gain favor from a defense-first coach like Vogel, and go a long way when he decides which players see the floor.
Also, even if James is on the bench, this group will still be headlined by two stars in Davis and Westbrook, who should be able to hold down the fort against almost any opposition. Both ultimately serving as tentpoles for keeping James’ fresh, as well as simultaneously building their own on-court rapport.
As the chart above illustrates, offensively, the lineup is also more balanced in terms of what they are good at (76th percentile or better in spacing, finishing at the rim and playmaking), which makes combustion less likely. Players like Bazemore and Trevor Ariza could also feel comfortable in their catch and shoot roles, thanks to Westbrook and Nunn’s creative skill, as well as the attention Davis will consume. This is a group that could thrive, even without LeBron.
In the end, no matter what analytics, film, voodoo, and everything else under the sun his teams attempt to use to fix it, there is always going to be a specific reason why James’ squads struggle when he’s not on the floor — there is no single-handedly replicating what he provides. It takes a village. A collection of individuals who can make up for each other’s weaknesses, and benefit from their strengths.
Configuring the right units to do so will be one of this coaching staff’s most important duties this upcoming year, especially when it comes to preserving James ahead of a playoffs he’ll enter at 37 years old.
Fresh off a season where he averaged his fewest minutes per game of his career, addressing the time in which James sits will be paramount given he likely will continue to play and be responsible for less going forward. The security blanket he provides will simply not always be there.
None of this is to suggest that the Lakers ultimately accounting for his absence will be easy, but they do have the benefit of having choices now. It is this level of optionality they have not been privy to previously during James’ tenure, and it this level of flexibility that could be the exact thing that takes them to new heights.
The familiar scene will undoubtedly play itself out again like it always has. James, off the floor, one eye on the action in front of him, the other peeking at the scoreboard. But maybe this season his time on the bench will last a little longer. The aches that come from 18-years’ worth of battles can be worked on some more. His teammates, without him, can finally prove they got this. It is likely only then when a collective exhale can be had. An exhale filled not with anxiety or exasperation, but relief.