With an absolutely torrid opening to the Lakers free agency, I’m still trying to process what exactly just happened and decided the best way was to outline initial thoughts on paper here. The most important thing, of course, is that the Lakers have Lebron James, while Boston and Philly do not, and we are thereby set up for years of joyous basketball. In the midst of everything else, that’s the only thing that really matters, and I may not stop smiling for weeks.
But it’s also intensely interesting to begin considering how the roster will look around Lebron next year, particularly given Magic and Pelinka quickly adding several … unexpected pieces – Rondo, Lance, McGee, renouncing Randle… I am terrified, confused, excited, and overwhelmingly impatient to see how this all works.
With that in mind, here are a few scattered thoughts about the new additions, with the caveat that the Lakers will probably have an entirely new supporting cast by the time this is published…
One common talking point among the national media is that the roster surrounding Lebron is fatally deficient in shooting. While the team isn’t lined up to be a Warriors or Rockets level three point threat, I believe there is more than sufficient shooting to facilitate highly efficient offense and provide Lebron with space to operate.
For comparison, Cleveland, despite being a chaotic mess last year, was strong offensively, finishing 5th in offensive efficiency (110.6 ORtg). And they did so through a combination of Lebron’s insane individual efficiency and solid 3 point shooting. With respect to the latter, Cleveland had the fourth highest three point rate (percent of FGAs that were 3s), and 6th highest 3P% (37.2%). As we lamented all year, LA finished second to last in 3P% at 34.5%.
LA’s roster looks capable to me of approaching Cleveland’s shooting around Lebron. For example:
- At SG, JR Smith made 1.8 3s on 38%; KCP made 2.1 3s on 38%.
- At PF, Love made 2.3 3s on 41% (and was around 37% in prior years); Kuzma made 2.1 3s on 37% as a rookie, and should improve as he develops; Ingram shot 39% and hopefully that efficiency holds with more volume.
- At PG, Hill made 1.1 threes on 35%; Lonzo made 1.7 threes on 31%, but his UCLA data (97th percentile as a jump shooter on high volume) and second half numbers provide reasons to believe he can increase to 34-36% this year and beyond.
- Off the bench, Cleveland had Korver (44%), Clarkson (40%), Hood (35%), and Green (31%).
- LA does not have a Korver, and grabbing a shooter over Lance would have been helpful… But this team does have a few plus bench shooters: Hart (39%), Svi and Wagner (elite shooters in college), and even Rondo (36% average the last three years).
- If LA brings back Lopez (1.5 3s on 35%), he would offer a stretch 5 that Lebron did not have last year.
While the Lakers don’t have a specialist like Korver, most of the players who will play heavy minutes have potential as solid shooters – Kuzma, KCP, Ingram, Hart, Wagner, and hopefully Lopez. Even Rondo and Lonzo should be able to hold their own as mid-30s shooters.
In addition, Lebron’s presence should help LA’s shooters in a few critical ways. First, players shoot better playing next to Lonzo than they do without him. When Lebron was on the court last year, Cleveland shot 38.3% from three; when he was off, they shot 33.2% — a massive 5% swing.
We know well, for example, that Clarkson was not a 40% shooter in LA, but there’s a difference between shooting wide open corner 3s off of a Lebron drive and pulling up late in the clock off the dribble… Lebron may be the best we’ve ever seen at manipulating a defense to attract help defenders in ways that are specifically designed to force open high percentage three point looks. Everyone should shoot better playing next to Lebron.
Second—and this is even more important—Lebron’s presence should significantly increase the FREQUENCY of LA’s three point attempts. When Lebron was on the court, 39% of Cleveland’s FGA’s were 3s; when he sat, only 34% were 3s. That’s basically the difference between the frequency that Cleveland and LA attempted 3s last year.
As Houston has shown us so vividly, math dictates that increasing 3P rate increases offensive efficiency. For example, every attempt from a 37% three point shooter has a 1.11 expected PPP; an attempt from a 39% shooter has a 1.17 expected PPP; and so on. The best offenses score over 1.10 PPP, so increasing the frequency of Kuzma, KCP, Ingram, and Hart’s threes will boost LA’s (and their individual) scoring efficiency. I expect LA to be a top ten team in three point rate next year and that change alone will significantly help the offense.
That all said, I do hope LA finds ways to still improve the shooting on the roster, by signing Lopez and perhaps adding a Korver type at the deadline. But I believe the media is underselling LA’s shooting potential and the pieces are in place to provide efficient spacing around Lebron.
I’m not going to analyze the Rondo addition in terms of whether I’d rather have Randle (I’d obviously prefer Randle). The news broke in a way that invited a Randle vs. Rondo debate, but I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. Putting that angle aside, I’m excited to have Rondo on the team and will touch on a few reasons why.
First, Rondo is not a bad shooter. The last three years he made 162 threes, over one per 36 minutes, on 35.7% shooting. That’s just fine — Rondo can make open threes. The problem is more that he only shoots when he’s WIDE open, which results in a fairly low three point rate. Defenders play him accordingly and that sometimes cramps spacing, but he’s not the Boston version that Kobe refused to even guard.
Second, Rondo is not quite as ball dominant as reputed. Of the 114 guards that played more than 20 minutes a game, Rondo was 51st in average seconds per touch (4.08), and 56th in average dribbles per touch (3.44). This is far less ball dominant than the Harden, Wall, Westbrook, CP3 types, who average around 6 seconds and 5 dribbles per touch. In fact, Rondo isn’t far from … Lonzo in these metrics (3.82 seconds, 2.94 dribbles). He’s capable of keeping the ball moving.
Third, Rondo played at an extremely high level after Boogie went down, helping fuel New Orleans blistering close to the year. New Orleans had the 5th best record after the all star break, with Rondo averaging 9.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 10.0 assists on 48% shooting. During that stretch, New Orleans had a +9.3 net rating with Rondo on the court, and -0.7 with him off, which demonstrates enormous positive impact.
For the season, New Orlean’s best lineup (Rondo-Holiday-Moore-Mirotic-Davis) had the 6th best net rating in the league (among lineups with 200+ minutes). In the postseason, Playoff Rondo played at an all star level, averaging 10.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 12.2 assists, even shooting 42% from three, helping New Orleans sweep Portland and give Golden State a tough battle.
Fourth, Rondo is an INTENSE competitor who processes the game at a truly unique level. Brian Scalabrine, one of his Boston teammates, said that Rondo is the “smartest basketball player I’ve ever played with.” Lebron recently recalled that “Rondo was calling out sets every time” during his Boston battles, disrupting Cleveland’s plays at the outset. As others have noted, Rondo could be uniquely positioned to mentor Lonzo given the latter’s cerebral approach to the game.
Rondo also brings a competitive edge that fits with the culture that Magic is trying to instill in the young core. Remember Rondo being ejected within minutes of Isaiah entering the game last year… Or knocking heads with Ray Allen after he left for Miami… Or going toe to toe with Lebron when Rondo’s Celtics beat Lebron’s Cavs. Or, frankly, giving the Lakers fits when Boston won the 2008 title.
I know that advanced stats, past stat-hunting, the fit with Lebron/Lonzo, shooting hesitation, etc., etc. suggest risks, but I still believe he’s going to help this team win games.
The Bench and Spacing
Many are concerned about the spacing with likely bench lineups that will probably feature Rondo, Lance, and McGee. This is a fair question given the importance of shooting in today’s league, but I think the concern may be overstated.
Whenever I watch some of the non-shooting playmakers – Giannis, Simmons, Westbrook, even Rondo — I’m reminded that there’s enough room on an NBA court for players like this to operate, even as defenses attempt to pack things in. Defenses know full well that Rondo is always looking for the pass and is not going to shoot jumpers off the dribble, but he still finds ways to consistently set up scoring plays.
And while I would have strongly preferred a shooter instead of Lance, I think LA can still put together bench lineups that work. Note that Golden State’s primary bench lineups was Livingston-Klay-Iggy-West-Green, which features 3 non-shooters, but they still had a +13.7 net rating. Their second most common bench lineup was Livingston-Klay-Young-West-Green, which had a 111.9 ORtg and +9.7 net rating, and also had multiple non-shooters.
When Lebron sits, LA could roll out Rondo-Hart-Lance-Kuzma-McGee. Rondo and McGee would drive most offensive possessions with an early pick & roll, which should pressure the defense given McGee’s insane vertical gravity and Rondo’s passing chops, with two strong shooters spotting up (Kuzma and Hart), and Lance as a secondary playmaker. This lineup should provide an advantage most nights over the opposition’s bench, allowing Lebron to rest without feeling pressure to play last year’s league leading 38 minutes.
If Lance isn’t in the rotation (perhaps this is optimistic…), you could instead roll out Rondo-Hart-KCP-Kuzma-McGee, which would be even more potent offensively. But however they divide the minutes, LA’s roster already runs 9-10 deep in quality players, with Rondo potentially able to carve up opposing bench competition. Depth matters for winning regular season games over an 82 game season and should be an advantage for the team.
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I’m still processing everything that has happened, and suspect at least one more big move is coming to complete the roster, but I’m optimistic overall about what the team has put together.
Lebron alone sets the Lakers up for years of joy; this team still has Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, and Wagner, all of whom will be exciting to watch grow; Rondo is a proven competitor who can help LA win playoff series; and they maintain flexibility to strike when opportunities arise.
And I suspect opportunities are coming.
Follow Reed at @Reed_nba