After the Los Angeles Lakers struck out on Kawhi Leonard in free agency, they quickly went out and cornered the market on remaining shooters, bringing in Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Quinn Cook—the first two of whom have earned strong defensive reputations as well.
A few days later, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported the Lakers are headed into the season “with the intention of starting LeBron James at point guard.”
Yes, that series of moves is related.
While Haynes’ report largely drew eye rolls at the time—”hasn’t James always been a point guard?”—LBJ’s positional shift is a bigger deal than you might think, even if it’s only nominal.
Last season, James logged 602 of his 1,938 minutes on the court alongside Rajon Rondo. He spent an additional 821 minutes next to Lonzo Ball, and all three only shared the court with one another for 27 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
That means LeBron spent a majority of his time playing with another point guard.
Of James’ 4,155 possessions with the Lakers last season, only 1,119 came without either Rondo or Ball on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. In those lineups, he did function as the nominal point guard, though players such as Reggie Bullock, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Lance Stephenson and Josh Hart officially manned the 1 spot.
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers initially pitched James on “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.”
Their lack of shooting completely (and predictably) undermined that plan, however.
The Lakers finished with the league’s second-worst three-point shooting percentage (33.3) and had only one player (Caruso) shoot above 40 percent from deep. They hoped that “adding playmaking and playing at a fast pace” would mitigate their lack of long-range marksmen, according to Windhorst and Shelburne, but that plan went belly-up when defenses began sagging off their non-threats.
During an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio in November, then-team president Magic Johnson confirmed the Lakers intentionally wanted to alleviate James of some ball-handling duties (via ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk).
“We got a lot of ball-handlers, so we feel we won’t overuse him in terms of his ball-handling and also every play has to run through him,” Johnson said. “I think we got proven scorers— Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram … and then when you have two point guards like Ball and Rondo, we don’t have to have LeBron having the ball in his hands all the time.”
However, playing next to Rondo or Ball didn’t stop James from being one of the league’s highest-usage players. His 31.6 usage rate was right in line with his career average (31.5), and it still ranked eighth league-wide last season. He was also among the top 10 in touches per game (85.0, eighth) and potential assists (16.2, second).
That doesn’t mean the Lakers necessarily optimized him, though.
The beauty of having a 6’8″ ball-handler like James is that he allows for positional flexibility. Teams don’t need to trot out a ball-dominant point guard next to him.
The early-2010s Miami Heat succeeded with low-usage, off-ball floor generals such as Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, as James and Wade gobbled up a majority of the offensive touches. The mid-2010s Cleveland Cavaliers had a fellow All-Star in Kyrie Irving, who fit well next to James because of his shooting range and ability to create off the dribble.
Once Irving forced his way out of Cleveland in the summer of 2017, the Cavaliers failed to adjust. Rather than embrace a positionless lineup with James as the nominal point guard, they started the corpse of Jose Calderon for 32 games and dabbled with the likes of Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas before settling on 31-year-old George Hill.
It at least sounds like the Lakers are looking to avoid a similar trap this season.
During a recent appearance on The Crossover podcast, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel played down Haynes’ report, telling Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated: “LeBron’s not going to be asked to do anything he hasn’t done his whole career. He’ll be a primary ball-handler.” However, he added that he hadn’t “made any decisions on starting lineups or exact roles or anything like that as was reported. That stuff will all play itself out.”
Haynes reported that James and Green “are expected to start in the backcourt” for the Lakers this season. Anthony Davis is a shoo-in for the starting lineup as well (likely at center) while the other two spots remain up for grabs at the moment.
From there, Vogel can begin experimenting.
Do the Lakers need another wing like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Avery Bradley in the starting lineup to spare James or Green from having to defend opposing point guards? Would Kyle Kuzma be better coming off the bench, where he could feast as an offensive centerpiece against reserves? Where does DeMarcus Cousins fit in?
Much of that may depend on Davis’ preferences.
“I like playing the 4. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the 4,” he said during his introductory press conference with the Lakers, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t really like playing the 5.”
However, Davis then turned to Vogel and said: ” If it comes down to it, coach, and you need me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”
If Davis insists on playing next to another big like Cousins or JaVale McGee in the starting lineup, that could influence Vogel’s thinking for the final starting spot. If Davis is willing to start at center, that might make room for Kuzma as the starting 4 and another wing to handle defensive duties on point guards.
Rondo figures to be locked into place as the primary backup point guard, and he’s sure to spend some time next to James, too. But given his lack of long-range prowess—he’s a career 31.5 percent three-point shooter—the Lakers would be wise to limit his minutes alongside the four-time MVP.
Too many people think in binary terms of “well, LeBron can’t guard the best point guards anymore” when hearing that he might be playing point guard himself. Sure, LeBron still can chase those little guys around for stretches, but there’s no regular-season wisdom in doing so. Rather, that’s what the slew of wings like Green, KCP, Bradley, etc. are for.
Hiding LeBron for stretches on an opponent’s weaker wing just makes sense, allowing him to be tacked onto marquee assignments only when the moment requires. The Lakers need him fresh for crunch-time and the postseason rather than a gassed out, potentially broken down version dragging their roster on both ends into a sure first-round exit.
It’s also another indicator that the Lakers’ starting lineup likely can and should be relatively fluid throughout the year, even as a general rotation pattern is a must.
Playing a guard-heavy team like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors? Start two or even three wings next to LeBron and Davis, allowing those two stars to match up with the bigs. Seeing a longer opponent like the Portland Trail Blazers or Dallas Mavericks? Maybe it’s time to give Cousins or McGee a turn while one of the aforementioned wings plays with the second unit instead.
The Lakers will have no shortage of lineup options at their disposal this season. If they do commit to using James as their primary ball-handler—and don’t make him share the floor often with another high-usage non-shooter like Rondo—it should only increase their versatility.