After a near month long absence, LeBron James made his return to the floor on Sunday in the Lakers 118-108 loss to the Chicago Bulls. James scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds in his 29 minutes off the bench.
Although the individual rust from James’ lengthy layoff was evident and expected, what was also notable was the unevenness in his teammates’ first go at readjusting to his on-court magnetism was also noticeable.
While James has been sidelined, the rest of the team has done an impressive job staying in the playoff picture behind a balanced offensive attack and stingy defense. Their 8-5 record during that stretch ranked third-best among all Western Conference teams.
Sunday’s loss ultimately wasn't on James, but it did highlight the types of growing pains the team has to work through with only seven games left in the regular season.
“I mean there’s some good to it and some bad to it, honestly,” Troy Brown Jr told reporters when asked about the team’s reincorporation of James into the offense. Brown had started in place of James during his injury.
“With it being so quick, you gotta get used to it, obviously. He plays a certain way and we were playing a certain style, and he comes back and it’s like we have to adjust. So it’s good to have these next two days to figure it out and get it together.”
The team’s offense largely benefitted from a multifaceted approach with the guards all stepping up individually and collectively, their shooters like Brown knocking down timely threes, and Anthony Davis serving as the focal point.
Against the Bulls, there were multiple instances where the ball stopped moving, and players instead deferred to James to facilitate out of the post. Once free and in rhythm, the squad played stagnant and tepid in James’ return Sunday.
One of the players who looked most impacted from James’ return was Davis, who between facing double-teams and battling foul trouble, felt like a tertiary option at best after being the team’s sun in the past month.
“He’s good enough, and we’re good enough to kinda figure it out on the fly. I think we’ll be fine for sure,” Davis said following the game. In his 35 minutes of action, Davis attempted just eight shots and had the second-lowest usage rate among the team’s starters.
“Obviously he’s a big part of our team, and him coming back with eight games left, gives us the time to work out the kinks we’ll have with a guy who has missed so much time. It gives him the time to get into the rhythm of things for his game then two, three games left.”
Beyond the sheer relearning of playing next to a player of James’ caliber, there will also be a natural slotting realignment now that the team will finally be fully intact.
Players who were asked to take on bigger responsibilities will now be asked to do less. And in some cases, not play at all.
Austin Reaves, who arguably stepped up the most in terms of on-ball creation during James’ absence, took an expected backseat when once again sharing the floor with him.
Although Reaves was efficient from the field and had seven assists against the Bulls, he also had five turnovers and posted a usage rate of just 18 percent. He previously was averaging a 23.6% usage rate in his previous ten games.
In the last ten games, Reaves ranks second on the Lakers in touches, third in passes made, first in assists, first in hockey assists, tied for first in potential assists and first in assist points created.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) March 23, 2023
The comfort on-the-ball when creating for himself & others is absurd atm. pic.twitter.com/kC9EPJ2DX6
With Reaves and the team’s other guards facing the most difficult adjustment in getting back into more off-ball roles, for other players, the challenge will come instead in the form of DNP’s.
After being a bright spot the past several weeks, Darvin Ham opted to not play Rui Hachimura against the Bulls. It was the first time Hachimura failed to log a minute since his arrival to Los Angeles. In his place was Lonnie Walker, who after his strong outing against the Thunder, got the nod in Ham’s nine-player rotation.
“I mean it’s hard, there’s not enough minutes for everyone,” Ham said in his postgame conference.
“When you have a lot of good players, through no fault of their own, someone is going to be left out of the rotation and tonight it was Rui. Getting LeBron back and seeing him out there was great, and now we just have to again get everyone back on the same page and get back in rhythm with one and other.”
While the management of ego’s and other interpersonal factors remain important for buy-in, maximizing the on-court production of the team’s key players will likely be of the upmost importance during this final stretch.
Beyond James, the Lakers will also look to now work D’Angelo Russell back into the calculation.
Russell, who has missed the team’s last two games and eight total since arriving at the deadline, has played well in his short stint with the team but has had little playing time next to James in particular.
The trio of James, Davis and Russell have logged just 45 non-garbage time possessions together according to Cleaning the Glass. Getting all three healthy and building a level of cohesion, will be one of the more important objectives for the team down the stretch.
James’ return is not the first time the team has been faced with changing course on the fly. Between the numerous injuries to their star duo alone, and the drastic midseason roster makeover, the Lakers are both fortunately and unfortunately not unaccustomed to change.
In many ways, it has actually been their resiliency and malleability that has kept them in position to still make some noise if they’re able to once again adapt.
But with only seven games now left and clinging onto one of the final play-in spots in the Western Conference, the Lakers’ latest rebalancing act will have to be microwaved rather than slow-cooked. And how effectively they’re able to do so, may decide their postseason fate.
“They’ll be times and opportunities to make sure we’re all on the same page and reimplementing him back into the lineup,” Ham said regarding James.
“He’s a savvy veteran, one of the greatest to ever do it over twenty years, so it’s not going to take much.”
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.