Making sense of the Lakers’ free agency madness

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers
Apr 20, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) is guarded by Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) during the first quarter in game three of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

 

The flurry of movement the Lakers made over the opening week of free agency was overwhelming, exciting and even a bit confusing at times.

In the span of roughly 24 hours, the Lakers went from a promising young team in the latter stages of a rebuild to one of the Western Conference’s top teams starting with the LeBron James’ signing. The retention of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the additions of Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee and the subtraction of Julius Randle all in the same 24-hour period after landing James left heads spinning.

Trying to wrap my head around the moves has been challenging considering everything that happened in such a short span. Personally, the euphoria of landing James was somewhat dampened by losing Randle, a player who appeared to have established himself as an integral member of the young core.

Instead of racing to the keyboard to try to hash out my results, I relied on smarter minds to offer level-headed reasoning. This Forum Blue & Gold piece by Reed offered a lot of insight on the additions and why the apparent lack of shooting brought in during free agency might not be too severe.

David Murphy at Searching For Slava wrote about why the Lakers’ off-season made sense considering the future is more the focus than the present. And lastly, Cranjis McBasketball’s huge encyclopedia of information about the Lakers’ summer was incredibly insightful with tons of statistics.

Two things should be kept in mind when looking at the Lakers’ off-season moves after James.

First, I think it’s imperative to remember this is a two-year plan for the Lakers. By committing for at least three years, James signaled his trust in the Lakers’ front office and also gave them a longer timetable than normal to build a contender around James.

Is Rondo worth nine million dollars annually? No. Is Stephenson worth four million annually? No. But in exchange for a lack of long-term security, teams are typically forced to overpay for players on one-year deals.

It’s clear the Lakers have confidence in the growth of their younger players and a plan of James plus cap space plus a young core will be enough to land a Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler or maybe even Klay Thompson in 2019.

Secondly, it’s also abundantly clear based on the moves made this summer and the reports coming out of his camp that James is serious about moving to the post and off the ball more and that the Lakers believe him.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported as much after James’ signing with the Lakers. James’ body certainly was put through the ringer last season in Cleveland and it’s not shocking that he wouldn’t want to through that again.

For a Laker team that relied so heavily on Lonzo Ball as the initiator and playmaker last season, bringing in multiple ball handlers and initiators like Stephenson and Rondo makes sense, takes a certain burden off Ball and frees up the offense to be more free-flowing.

So when evaluating the off-season after James, it’s important to keep both of those ideas in mind. Fans may be frustrated with some of the signings, but there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal. It’s near impossible to put together a championship contender in one year and expecting as much from the Lakers in a normal season would be lofty expectations. Doing so in the same conference, the same division as the Warriors is a bridge too far.

Having taken all that into account, let’s dive into each of the four signees.

LeBron James

Say it with me: LeBron James is a Laker. It’s a fact that has not sunk in yet. When Klutch Sports tweeted a picture of him alongside Rob Pelinka, I had to convince myself it wasn’t a photoshop. Arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the game will don purple and gold next season.

Most of the things that James’ arrival symbolizes has been talked about at this point and I have mentioned some in this piece already. There are two aspects of James on the Lakers I’d like to talk about.

The Lakers, as mentioned, are clearly considering James as a power forward who won’t have the ball as much. James realized that if he wants to stay in the NBA until his son is in the league, he can’t continue to play the way he did with the Cavaliers last season.

His 31.6 percent usage rate last year was his highest in three seasons. His 44.4 percent assist rate was the highest in his career by three percent. Those figures are just as drastic in the playoffs where he had a 35 percent usage percentage and an absurd 46.4 percent assist percentage.

If James really is focused on playing in the post and without the ball this season, it opens up some intriguing possibilities.

In offense initiated out of the post last season, James was in the 92nd percentile. Passes to cutters out of the post from James yielded 1.639 points per possession (PPP). Passes to spot-up shooters yielded 1.159 PPP. Overall, James was in the 92nd percentile on offense out of the post.

Interestingly, the Lakers have a host of players who performed very well on cuts, including some of the new signees. Here’s some of the notable players, their PPP and percentile rank on cuts last season.

McGee – 1.352 PPP, 72nd
Stephenson – 1.429, 84th
Ingram – 1.271, 51st

Much like James’ gravity will open up spot-up opportunities, it’ll also open up cutting opportunities for teammates, particularly on the weak side. If James really is focused on working out of the post, he could turn into an even deadlier facilitator.

The other aspect to talk about with James is the lack of shooting, which has been touched on ad nauseam. In the linked piece at the start of the article from Forum Blue & Gold, Reed suggested that simply having James on the floor to create open looks inflates shooting percentages of teammates.

The commonly-held belief is the best way to maximize James’ talent is to surround him with shooters. In theory, that is true. But in practice, it leads to teams becoming super reliant on James to create, always have the ball and always be on the court. It’s a reoccurring theme with James’ teams, particularly this season in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving gone.

With James off the court last season, the Cavs shot 33 percent from three. There were few ball-handlers, few creators and a host of players used to getting open looks of James that, when he wasn’t there, the offense stagnated.

That’s why, to me, the signings of Stephenson and Rondo make sense. It lessens the burden on James and means the Lakers can still have a competent offense with James off the court.

In all, it’ll be fascinating to see how James is used this season and how the young players and new signees interact with James on the court.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans
Mar 22, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Rajon Rondo (9) smiles towards Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball (2) during the fourth quarter at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Lakers 128-125. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo

Last year when the Lakers were rumored to be interested in Rondo, I was adamantly against it with the franchise still in a rebuild. This season, I love the move. After having the keys handed to him, Lonzo Ball could do well to be challenged and ensure he’s the future of the franchise.

Rondo himself isn’t a bad player. After DeMarcus Cousins went down last season, Rondo was great and a large reason why the New Orleans Pelicans made a late push into the playoffs and swept the Blazers in the first round.

Now, with the Lakers, he creates some intriguing possibilities. While a shell of his former self, Rondo is still a useful player and a great option as a backup point guard. Last season, he ranked in the 66th percentile in the pick-and-roll as a ballhandler. On top of being a great mentor for Ball – who ranked in the 18th percentile in the pick-and-roll – Rondo is also paired with one of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league in JaVale McGee.

With the Warriors last season, McGee finished with 1.412 PPP as a roll man, ranking him in the 95th percentile. A unit consisting of Rondo-Stephenson-Svi Mykhailiuk-Kyle Kuzma-McGee would have ample spacing and playmaking and could be a great lineup against bench units, for example.

On offense derived out of the pick-and-roll, Rondo’s 1.09 PPP was in the 92nd percentile. On passes to spot-up shooters, Rondo finished with 1.312 PPP and was in the 100th percentile on passes to cutters at 1.674 PPP.

Giving Rondo an elite roll man and space to operate still can prove to be a viable offense in 2018 and the Lakers can do just that.

There’s also the possibility of an intriguing pick-and-roll with Rondo and James. We’ve seen how effective James can be in pick-and-rolls with guards, especially with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Both are incredibly smart players who know how to manipulate defenses and could wreak havoc.

Regardless of what units he’s with, expect a heavy dose of pick-and-roll with Rondo. On top of his on-court production, Rondo also has been a good mentor to young players in the past and could be a great addition to the Lakers in that regard as well.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers
Dec 18, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors center JaVale McGee (1) and Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez (11) fight for rebounding position during the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Javale McGee

McGee provides something that the Lakers haven’t had in a long time in a pick-and-roll target. I mentioned how great he was in the pick and roll last season and as a cutter, but he was also a great big man in transition.

His 1.536 PPP ranks him in the 99th percentile, another aspect in which he should flourish with the Lakers. McGee is the first vertical lob threat the Lakers have had in a center since possibly Andrew Bynum, and certainly one out of the pick and roll.

Defensively, McGee measures out as an average defender nearly across the board with the one exceptions coming in post-ups where he ranks in the 81st percentile and in defending the big in pick-and-rolls where he ranks in the 94th percentile.

Often the butt of jokes around the league and seen as a backup center, McGee has value in the Lakers’ offense. In fact, I’d be comfortable with having him start before transitioning to small ball.

Lance Stephenson

The most trivial signing of the summer for most fans, there is some logic and good to landing Stephenson.

For one, as much as one can mock him for it, Stephenson is an agitator that takes players out of their comfort zone. For as wild as he may be on some nights, he brings a constant energy to every game which will prove to be valuable during the regular season off the bench.

Statistically, Stephenson measured out in the 37th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, but was in the 51st percentile in spot up opportunities and, as previously mentioned, an 84th percentile cutter, albeit in just 14 possessions. He’s a solid rebounding guard, ranking in the 58th percentile in offensive rebound putbacks.

In pick-and-roll situations, Stephenson yielded 1.086 PPP in passes to the roll man and 1.444 PPP in passes to cutters. He’s average in pull-up jumpers out of the pick-and-roll, finishing with a 40 percent field goal percentage in those situations.

Stephenson is an above average passer in pick-and-roll situations, as mentioned above. He’s also serviceable in spot-up situations, yielding 1.061 PPP on no-dribble spot-up shots and an impressive 1.132 PPP when attacking the basket out of spot-ups.

As a spot-up shooter with his team running a pick-and-roll, Stephenson yielded 1.176 PPP and shot 46.3 percent from the field.

The concerns with Stephenson, though, are less in terms of his play and more in terms of mentally. Bizarrely, he’s never really played well outside of Indiana. He’s also an emotional player that works both for him and against him and off-court issues from his younger days have followed him throughout his career. In the end, though, he represents an experienced player that has had many playoff wars and brings experience in that regard. There is value to that. Whether it’s over $4 million of value is uncertain, but don’t be surprised if he’s a solid contributor this season.

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