When LeBron James takes the floor alongside Lonzo Ball on Oct. 18 for the Los Angeles Lakers’ season opener, Ball will instantly become the most talented playmaker LeBron’s ever shared kits with.
No longer the defensive titan of the early 2010s, LeBron sits perched atop the league because of his offensive wizardry, capable of pinching defenses in a variety of ways. Yet a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team curbed some of his ancillary talents last season, needing him to catalyze nearly every offensive possession as an isolation scorer or pick-and-roll engine.
While he’s played with more talented guys in his career, none have emulated Ball’s blend of size, basketball savvy and vision. Sprinkle in tertiary ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram, and the full range of LeBron’s less-ball-dominant skill set should be unleashed.
With reports suggesting LeBron will see an increased run at center this season, he should find more opportunities to rub shoulders on the block, highlighting his post game. A season ago, he ranked in the 88th percentile (1.04 points per possession) in post-ups and when passes were factored in, he finished in the 92nd percentile (1.14 PPP).
The Lakers aren’t rich with shooters but a Ball-Josh Hart-Brandon Ingram-Kyle Kuzma-LeBron unit would empower him to zip the ball to snipers around the arc from the post or dial his own number for buckets — though self-creation through brute strength may be more challenging against true 4s and 5s.
Off the ball, LeBron can migrate to the arc, draw his defender out of the paint and open driving lanes for guys like Ingram and Kuzma. Or, when a capable secondary creator is directing the offense, LeBron can lurk in the shadows on the perimeter and leverage his quickness against traditional bigs.
Among players who registered at least 100 cuts last season, LeBron finished first in efficiency, tallying 1.62 PPP. When opponents key in on the complementary pieces, he’ll pounce on vacant creases to beeline toward the rim:
On other possessions, LeBron’s historic facilitating gifts will enable him to bend the defenses with floor-warping passes and leave them scrambling to recover as he pierces openings in the paint.
If Ingram can carry forward his upward trajectory as a scorer and ball-handler, the LeBron-Ingram pick-and-roll could emerge as a popular weapon for Los Angeles, given LeBron’s lethality as a roll man (80th percentile, 1.23 PPP). As a rookie, Ingram was in the 16th percentile (0.59 PPP) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Last season though, he leaped to the 45th percentile (0.79 PPP) on over 100 more total possessions.
That maturation was accelerated by Ingram’s growth as a pull-up shooter. In 2016-17, he connected on just 34.6 percent of his 208 off-the-bounce looks. In his second year, he found the net on 38.3 percent of his 222 attempts. Assuming he raises that efficiency another notch and makes continued strides as a passer, he and LeBron will leave defenses paralyzed in the pick-and-roll.
When teams go under the screen, Ingram can elevate for a jumper. If they fight over, Ingram should be able to execute quick reads and find LeBron lumbering to the rim. If a third party gets involved to tag LeBron on the roll, Ingram can sling it to the open man. If they attempt to streamline coverage and switch the action, LeBron can play bully ball or Ingram can use his length and quickness to torch bigs.
In transition, LeBron and Ball’s penchant for the quarterback-esque, full-court launches will find paydirt with streaking wings, helping to buoy the Lakers’ emphasis on an up-tempo offense.
“We’re gonna play fast. Whether it’s the same speed (as last season), faster, slower, we’ll get to know our team as training camp goes,” head coach Luke Walton said at Media Day on Sept. 24. “We have a very deep team, we have a lot of guys who can push the ball. We want to attack. We think a big strength of ours this year will be our depth and the amount of guys that we can throw at you. When you have that type of team, it’s a big advantage to push it down and make other teams play more possessions and play at a faster pace.”
Last season, they finished third in pace (102.62) and first in transition frequency, but just 22nd in efficiency. Meanwhile, LeBron was ninth in PPP (1.19) among the 43 players to register at least 200 transition possessions in 2017-18. Adding a player of his ilk is only going to boost Los Angeles’ open-court affluence.
And, if early reports are any indication, LeBron is willing to embrace his new employer’s philosophy.
“My game does not change no matter who I’m alongside. I believe my game can fit with anybody. I’m a team-first guy. I love passing the ball, I love sharing the ball,” he said, according to Silver Screen and Roll. “And then watching these guys from the outside looking in, the level of pace that they play with I’m excited about … I love getting up and down and running.”
While LeBron is likely to shift off the ball more often than year’s past, he’s still going to be featured with the rock and slide Ball into the peripheral. Despite a jumper on life support, Ball is a high-IQ player who can provide off-ball value. He didn’t grade out as an efficient cutter last season (40th percentile, 1.22 PPP), but often darted to the bucket, only to be ignored and flow through the possession, handicapped by limited playmaking around him.
He can also utilize his 6-foot-6 frame and newfound strength to serve as an off-ball screener, springing open shooters like Kuzma, Hart or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And, if his teammates boast enough gravity, he can slip the pick, whiz to the rim and snare feeds from LeBron for open looks.
The Lakers still have the opportunity to feature Ball’s playmaking even if he’s not the primary ball-handler. When LeBron or Ingram attack off the dribble and compromise defenses, Ball will be there on the wing, primed to strike and create buckets for others — a trait he periodically flashed last season, though it was underutilized due to the lack of proficient floor generals around him.
Carving out fewer possessions where Ball is commanding the troops through perimeter-oriented pick-and-roll action — he finished in the 18th percentile last season — should benefit everyone. Lacking any semblance of a pull-up jumper (31.7 percent on 164 attempts last season) or the necessary finishing skills (48 percent at the rim, 6th percentile among combo guards) to be an ideal dribble-drive threat, Ball struggled with ball-screen tangos.
However, Walton hails from the Steve Kerr School of Offensive Creativity and finds outlets to maximize Ball’s passing without thrusting his shooting struggles into the spotlight. Take this Horns set for instance, which provides Ball the freedom to execute a pick-and-roll but doesn’t require him to be a scorer to find success:
It’s not hard to envision LeBron replacing Julius Randle as the roll man, Ingram replacing Isaiah Thomas as the initiator — providing spacing on the weakside wing — and any one of Kuzma, Hart, Caldwell-Pope or Svi Mykhailiuk spotting up in the strongside corner. With two shooters readily available and LeBron charging to the hoop, Ball’s full complement of passing talents would be on display.
Given the depth and talent of the Western Conference, Los Angeles isn’t likely to be anything more than a middling playoff team this season. And, in some senses, that’s OK. LeBron is locked up for at least three years — though punting a season of his top-level play is puzzling — and the young core is years away from their primes.
Either way, LeBron affords the Lakers flexibility aplenty. In a league where the 2019 champion seems like a foregone conclusion, that autonomy is rare.