What we knew in July is still true. LeBron James is surrounded by a bunch of average shooters. The only way for him to have success this season is for him to be off ball. But to be off ball he has to give up the rock. To give up the rock, he has to trust the ball handler. Lucky for him, the Lakers have ball handlers up and down the roster. Rajon Rondo. Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball. All are point guards or in Brandon Ingram’s case, have point guard skills. They allow LeBron, for the first time in his career, to roam around the perimeter and allow the offense to come to him instead of LeBron initiating everything.
This is a new look for LeBron after spending his entire career as a Magic Johnson/Michael Jordan hybrid. In June, after losing to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, he mentioned how much he wanted to be around players with a high basketball IQ. That is what he trusts, the ability to simultaneously react while thinking and while having an innate understanding of the right basketball play. It is the NBA’s version of less is more.
LeBron is seeking a way to tailor his game in these last few years. He handpicked Rondo. Lonzo and Ingram were already on the roster. All three have earned LeBron’s trust.
Rajon Rondo is a champion and veteran who sees the floor, makes the right pass and can transform LeBron into a finisher on the break or in the half court. He’s a gifted passer who can see a play before it happens but Rondo also is willing to let others initiate, particularly on the break going downhill coast to coast. A maniac about film, Rondo wants to look at every facet of every action to help him better anticipate.
Brandon Ingram is versatile and what LeBron hopes, a poor man’s Scottie Pippen. He can handle the ball like a point, score in multiple areas of the floor, and defend the perimeter with his length. He is improving at finishing in traffic and taking a bump before getting to the rim or hitting a jumper. He’s not the kind of baller who sees the play before it happens but he is a good ball handler and unselfish passer. Additionally, Ingram moves without the ball and will be a recipient of LeBron’s bounce passes at the rim. Easily, Ingram should get three dunks a game from LeBron’s court vision.
Lonzo Ball takes a lot of grief about his shooting and the book is still out on whether he can be a knock down three point shot maker. But what Lonzo can do is distribute the ball, make the right basketball play and defend with his 6-6 height. He is a big guard who changes the complexion of the game once Rondo exits. He can defend the perimeter, blocks shots, and is physical on defense. He allows LeBron to pick his spots on the floor and Lonzo, once he gets used to LeBron’s game, will find him.
For young LeBron, Rondo, Ingram and Ball may have been superfluous as LeBron was in his prime. To take away something from his game would have been similar to blasphemy. But at 34, he needs help, not because he’s not great but because he is. He is more of a threat when he can linger in the post. Expect a lot of rebounds this year as LeBron takes on the Julius Randle bully role of last year, grabbing boards right and left.
LeBron’s career has always been about making the right basketball play. Now, he has a team of ballhandlers who know how to be the starter to LeBron’s finisher. It will extend his career to do less. The question that haunts Luke Walton and the Lakers is not playmaking but shotmaking. Who besides LeBron can finish?
LeBron trusts his guys with the dribble. Now it’s about trusting the shooters.