LeBron James, for his entire career, has been a point forward. He’s often brought the ball up the court, initiated his team’s offensive sets, and been the player most leaned on to quarterback the progressions within those sets to reach a desirable outcome. Even when he’s played with other ball dominant point guards (like Kyrie Irving), LeBron has held onto this role to at least some degree. There simply has been no fully taking the ball out of his hands.
And for good reason! As not only the game’s best player, he’s also the league’s smartest player who understands how to leverage his immense skill set in a-beat-ahead-of real time to manufacture good shots for his team’s offense. There’s a reason LeBron’s teams consistently hover in the top-10 (and usually in the top-5) in the league in Offensive Efficiency (hint: the reason is him).
What happens, then, when you slide LeBron up a position and he becomes not a point forward, but a point power forward? The Lakers are about to find out and, I think they’re going to find it makes him even more dangerous.
Disregarding the competition that will surely develop in training camp for the starting Center slot, the most obvious Lakers starting lineup will include these four players: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, and LeBron. When examining that lineup, there really is little doubt that LeBron will be slotted at PF and, while he’s never played this position full time, history tells us that he will still have the ball in his hands often enough to be a fulcrum of the team’s sets even if he’s sharing ball handling and initiation duties with his lineup partners (in this case, Lonzo and Ingram).
Sussing this out isn’t rocket science, but saying it out loud and considering the ramifications are far reaching. The Lakers have essentially replaced Julius Randle with a player who is, basically, the same exact size but plays like a hybrid of a scoring wing, distributing point guard, and bully combo forward. Said another way, LeBron is hard enough to defend as he is, but defending him in lineups where his teammates offer no natural landing spot for the opposing PF and, thus, leaving that player to defend LeBron creates a major issue for the defense.
We all remember Julius Randle’s grab-and-go’s being essential to the Lakers’ fast paced attack last season. And we all remember how Randle’s combination of quickness and power caused PF’s of all ilks problems in the halfcourt. Okay, now substitute Randle with LeBron. You keep all those benefits Randle brought in both the open and halfcourt, but add to it expert level playmaking + a deep shooting threat, and then tell the other team’s PF to defend that player.
This is what the Lakers will have at their disposal this season.
Of course the flip side is that the current roster construction threatens — at least somewhat — the established paradigm of a ball dominant LeBron. Never has James been on a team with this many natural playmakers and teammates who are best utilized as either primary ballhandlers, isolation shot creators, and/or plain old point guards. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, even Michael Beasley and Kyle Kuzma are all established or growing their games towards being ball dominant players. LeBron may find himself on the floor with as many of 3 or 4 of these guys at any given time.
It makes sense to empower them and to let them play to their strengths even if it comes at the expense of and forces some change upon the game’s best player. Building a cohesive team with players who all feel ready to play their best likely demands it. The results, however, are not likely to be as efficient as those from possessions crafted through James. Even when he’s playing video games he seems to be able to sort out the best way to get a good shot for a teammate.
But, LeBron is still going to play his game, too. And when he does, particularly in lineups where there’s no place to hide an opposing PF defensively, he has the opportunity to feast on his individual matchup while also putting the opposing defense at large in more difficult positions via unfamiliar rotations more often.
In most conventional lineups, when not directly involved in a P&R, the defensive PF is usually put in positions where he’s a helper — either as a strong side first line of defense or rotating from the weakside where teams try to stretch him out by spacing the floor. When LeBron is being defended by the PF, it shifts the structure of the defense, turning the three-fourths of the weakside help into the players who are defending the Lakers PG/SG/SF. While those players are not unfamiliar with weakside help principles, they are typically not players who excel at the type of help that offers real deterrence at the basket.
Further, if the Lakers design sets where LeBron is running P&R’s with whoever the starting C is, they have the unique opportunity to place the opposition’s three perimeter defenders into backside help responsibilities against LeBron turning the corner and/or a big man rolling hard to the rim for a shot in the restricted area. Not many teams can run this type of action effectively offensively, but even fewer can defend it well with standard personnel. The Lakers are going to be able to test defenses and force them to solve this riddle.
Of course we need to see this all play out on the floor before getting too excited. There’s always a chance for hiccups or for the players to not mesh as well as they can on paper. As much as we’d want it to be, team building and producing positive lineup performance is not paint by numbers. So much of how groups mesh comes down to a meeting of the minds and how players’ individual decision making skews towards the collective and away from what each might think is best for only them in any given moment.
I have feeling, however, that things are going to fall into place. LeBron has a way of making that happen.