This wasn’t the team that anyone had envisioned when the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James to a four-year, $153.3 million contract. From the Miami Heat to his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, James was always surrounded by shooters everywhere especially from the guard positions.
Alas, the Lakers didn’t receive the memo and appear to be intent on changing the way their newest superstar is going to play from here on.
When it was revealed that Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson were among the free agents that the Lakers were about to sign to contracts after James, more than a few scratched their heads in confusion… while some others looked at it with disdain. There were also those who ridiculed the moves made by Magic Johnson, the team’s president of basketball operations.
Everyone knows that Rondo can’t shoot from the outside even if his life depended on it. He shot 33.3 percent from 3-point range last season, showing that his game hasn’t evolved shooting-wise. Stephenson has long been a foil of James from his Heat days and back to his second tour of duty with the Cavs. Their encounters were more entertaining and oftentimes comedic, to say the least. He, too, had an uneventful season shooting from beyond the arc at 28.9 percent.
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors, James’ chief rival from his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the team that has destroyed his chance at basketball immortality three times already, signed a big fish in All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and added him to their pond of really big fishes.
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, the signing of these new players was all part of Johnson’s plan, along with LeBron James himself, to change the way the Akron native plays from now on:
“What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself. Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile, as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches. That also follows with the talents of the 6-foot-6 Ball, who showed the ability to be an elite rebounder and defender for a guard in his rookie year.”
Windhorst and Shelburne added that James had taken notes on how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant “moved from the wing to the post as they approached their mid-30s.” Jordan understood that his explosiveness, though still very much evident when he drove to the basket, had not been the same as he aged.
Going to the post would keep him fresher with less pounding. It’s just one, two or three dribbles and he could then take a turn-around, fallaway jumper that is virtually unblockable. Bryant followed Jordan’s career path and it was one of the best decisions of his career.
LeBron James’ Indifference to the Post
James has employed the post up the past few years after studying under the tutelage of the low-post master himself, Hakeem Olajuwon. But the All-Star forward has used it sparingly since learning the art despite the advantages he has over his opponents. And even when he does put the post up to use, when faced with a smaller opponent such as the 6-foot-3 Stephen Curry, he would back him too far into the paint before making his move. By then, the double-team had already arrived and the result is either a turnover or a badly missed shot.
What’s baffling is that whenever James has the mid-post game going with the turnaround jumper falling regularly, he only teases fans with it for a game or two then reverts to his old habits. When he makes them consistently, he is one of the most unstoppable forces in the game. Just watch last season’s playoffs in Game 2 of the Toronto Raptors series. James absolutely deflated the Raptors with his jumpers, set up by his mid-post moves. Then, just when you thought he would use it as a weapon more frequently, he puts it back in his holster, never to be seen again except for a few possessions since then.
Developing a Go-To Move
Johnson understands how to work in the post since he utilized it to its fullest when he got older. At the end of the move, he usually fired up his “junior, junior skyhook,” as he called it. It was a pet move that he learned from the skyhook master himself, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose skyhook is considered the most dangerous weapon in the history of the league.
If James can somehow include these low post moves that Jordan and Bryant developed into his repertoire, he will add a new facet to his game that defenses will have to learn to defend. He’s already one of the most difficult players to guard and adding a go-to move from the post will not only extend his career, it will also give other teams more reasons to worry about when they face him.
As tough as it is to guard the 6-foot-8, 260-pound James already, he will be close to impossible to check with a whole new weapon in his arsenal.
Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, all of them playmakers, will help James to ease into this new way of playing the game. Though James posted the best assist numbers of his career, he did it while holding the ball much of the time. That happened because of the departure of Kyrie Irving via a trade with the Boston Celtics, leaving the Cavs without a point guard who can relieve James of his playmaking duties. Then, when they finally got a legitimate point guard with George Hill, James was already so accustomed to taking charge of the offense that even when he was playing heavy minutes, he wouldn’t let Hill bring the ball down court. James could have conserved his energy especially during the playoffs but he refused to give up the ball.
By playing in the post, the four-time Most Valuable Player will have to willingly give up the ball and let someone else feed him. He will avoid wearing himself out by having only a few touches in a game. He can also facilitate the offense from the post. If he’s double-teamed, he can kick the ball back outside to an open shooter or allow the receiver to pass the ball to a more open teammate. Unlike in his previous stints with Miami and Cleveland, James will have other teammates setting up the plays for him.
From Shooters to Playmakers
As an added bonus for the Lakers, Rajon Rondo is headstrong enough to tell LeBron James when he’s wrong and when he’s doing too much. That was something that was lacking in the Cavs bench last season when it seemed as though everyone was content to just let their fearless leader do almost anything he wanted during stretches.
Both Rondo and Stephenson are such a different breed of supporting cast for James that this change in style will be a daunting task for him. But as Windhorst and Shelburne would add later in the piece, the presence of playmakers should be able to mask their deficiencies as non-3-point threats.
“None of this is to say that the Lakers are content being the second-worst 3-point-shooting team in the league (35 percent), as they were last season. Or that adding a group of non-shooters with excess baggage will fix any of that.
The hope is that adding playmaking and playing at a fast pace mitigates some of those inefficiencies. Last season, according to Second Spectrum, the young Lakers played at the third-fastest pace in the league (102.6 possessions per 48 minutes) and averaged 22.6 points per game in transition, trailing only the Warriors.”
During the first month or two of the new season, expect to see the Lakers go through some growing pains especially with James learning to play differently from years past. There will be times when his old habits will manifest themselves far too frequently for the Lakers’ taste.
But if James fully commits himself to work with a new set of teammates and a new style of play, then the Lakers will soon resemble a team with the potential to contend for a championship eventually.
Predicting the Future
No matter how much James changes his game, there a few things you can bank on from the 15-year veteran: an All-Star season, perhaps even an MVP season as he leads a new team to greater heights, unquestionable leadership, mentoring of the Lakers’ young guns and a work ethic that is second-to-none in this league.
Will the Lakers play in the Western Conference Finals? That is a huge possibility and one that Johnson would like to ensure that his team is equipped to handle. Expect a trade or two at or near the trade deadline if things don’t go well for the team with one or two of the young ones are sent packing in exchange for a much-needed veteran presence.
But this is the worst-case scenario and I am more inclined to believe that the Lakers will have the right pieces in place before the season begins. The 14-time All-Star has the opportunity to prove that he can age gracefully just as Jordan and Bryant did. More than that, James’ new go-to move may separate him further from his peers, captivating audiences once again with his versatility and ability to adapt to almost any kind of offense.