On the surface, LeBron James’ addition to the Los Angeles Lakers means better, more competitive basketball. But on a deeper level, it’s a fascinating experiment. Add the best player in the world in what should amount to be the tail end of his prime to a mix of young, talented but unproven players who have yet to reach theirs and see what that amounts to.
This experiment will have multiple subsets. The Lakers will probably play more small-ball lineups than anyone in the NBA by virtue of their roster construction. They have surrounded arguably the best player ever at creating open three-point shots with veterans who are not shooters. And they have asked the 33-year-old James to play with more pace than ever before.
That pace has been the story of the Lakers’ preseason thus far as the purple and gold have averaged a torrid 112.18 possessions in their two games against the Denver Nuggets. While that pace is certainly amplified by it being preseason (it only ranks as the third highest in the league), it serves as a barometer for what the Lakers are hoping to accomplish in the framework of their offense.
James, for his part, has sounded excited and willing to run with the young Lakers despite his age and his previous tendencies. All throughout the offseason, media day and training camp, LeBron has fielded questions about how fast the Lakers plan to play, considering they were among the league leaders all of last year.
But James has never wavered, most recently telling Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that Luke Walton’s so-called strategy is the only acceptable option:
“You see those young legs out there,” James told Yahoo Sports. “We would be stupid not to utilize that as a strength. That’s just good coaching.”
Regardless of James’ comments, though, it’s fair to wonder if the insistence on playing fast is part of this honeymoon phase that the Lakers have before the season begins. If the team loses three games in a row in November, will James still believe in the mantra or will he revert back to what he has been comfortable with his entire, hall of fame career?
LeBron’s teams, as has been discussed ad nauseam this summer, have traditionally played at lower paces. In the previous fifteen seasons, the King has spent in the league, none of his teams have ranked higher than 12th in the league in pace. That particular team, last season’s Cavaliers was the only one to break 100 possessions per game, just passing the mark at 100.06. The Lakers, in the same season, averaged a pace of 102.62.
So why would LeBron James change the game style that has won him three rings and helped him reach eight straight Finals at this stage of his career?
There are a few factors at play.
First, the NBA as a whole has moved toward faster-paced basketball although it’s interesting to note that there isn’t a major correlation between pace and regular season success – three of the top five pace leaders made the playoffs but they were the only ones among the top ten who did so.
Second, this is the youngest team that LeBron has ever been a part of by a not insignificant margin. The current Lakers roster has an average age of 24.88. The only other time one of James’ teams has had an average age below 26 years old was his rookie year. The Lakers are built to run from a physical standpoint more than most teams in the NBA and certainly more than those that LeBron has been featured on.
Unlike the last eight teams that LeBron has been on, the Lakers are focused almost entirely on a “by-committee” approach. There is no second or third star, no sidekick that needs to handle the ball and isolate to get his. The Lakers will create offense through James, yes, but also through the multiple ball-handlers, most of whom are far more comfortable creating plays in transition than in the half-court.
Finally, the Lakers can use LeBron more as a catalyst to their fast breaks than the finisher. James is playing the power forward position almost exclusively this season, something he has not always been willing to do. That means that the team will rely, in part, on him to grab defensive rebounds and outlet the ball to runners to ignite fast breaks. What better player to make the first crucial play in allowing the team to run and take advantage of defenses before they are set.
When James does run, it will create mismatches for the Lakers in transition. Whether it’s through out-running slower players matching up on him or forcing rotations against fleeting opponents that could create lanes for his teammates, LeBron is the ultimate cheat code in such situations.
Of course, there will be times when the instinct is to slow the game down and the Lakers and Walton will be more than happy to defer to James in those situations. Last season’s Cavaliers team started games at a comparable pace to the Lakers, averaging a first-quarter pace of 102.41 but that number dropped throughout the game to a plodding 96.38 in the fourth quarter. That pattern was echoed in 2016-17, as well.
What’s clear is that the Lakers are built to run and LeBron James, by virtue of being literally the smartest basketball player ever, probably, knows this. With Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram and more willing to rebound and run and multiple young bodies on a fairly deep bench, the team can focus a lot of energy in getting out on transition, so long as they defend and rebound.
The Lakers’ biggest strength, though, is having LeBron and if there are recurring issues with the current plan (they are currently averaging 22 turnovers per game in the preseason), then his natural instincts will take over and the team will have to adjust.
The Lakers are best suited for a free-flowing game and thus their defense and rebounding will become even more crucial to making their vision work.