It was only a matter of time before LeBron James donned the purple and gold.
James and the young Los Angeles Lakers took the court in their first preseason matchup against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night. The basketball world got its first glimpse of how the pieces would fit together on the hardwood, and even though all the offseason questions are far from answered, some takeaways can be made.
Pushing the ball and playing with tempo
The past five LeBron-led teams have ranked 12th, 16th, 28th, 25th and 27th in pace. James once terrorized opposing defenses running the lanes in transition but has since taken it down a notch as he has gotten older. If their play against the Nuggets was any indication of an uptick, however, the Lakers will be gunning to be the fastest team in the league.
New point guard Rajon Rondo certainly has experience running a fast team. Last year, his Pelicans topped the league in pace, and it helped them maintain a top-10 offense. Even though Rondo’s role should diminish once Lonzo Ball fully recovers from his knee injury, the former Pelican’s presence pushing the ball will be felt as a second-unit distributor.
Watch the Lakers run here after a made basket. Contrary to the traditional bring-the-ball-up offense, Rondo quickly makes the quick outlet pass to LeBron that results in free throws. Passes from the lead guard before LeBron even crosses the half-court line generally result in good scoring opportunities.
Ball, the oft-injured starting point guard last season, will have plenty of chances to shine within this play style, as he is very skilled at limiting his dribble and making these type of quick passes.
An energized LeBron
On this after-timeout set, LeBron bursts out of the corner to receive a pass on the wing. The defense shifts, and the play leverages James’ gravity as a scorer by having him swing the ball back to the other side quickly. This allows Rondo to drive the lane and find an open Kyle Kuzma on the backside for a three.
When was the last time Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue got LeBron to actually run an offensive play? Lakers head coach Luke Walton has a seemingly re-energized James at his disposal and will have chances throughout the season to display the coaching expertise he gained under Steve Kerr in Golden State.
The question of LeBron’s energy remains, however, unanswered. James coasted through the whole regular season last year and almost seemed to use his indifference to signal to the Cleveland front office to make roster changes. His effort on defense should be much better than last year’s, as he seems more upbeat and ready to be a leader for this young team. But the real tests could come in the form of losing streaks; how will LeBron respond if the pieces don’t fit all that well together?
The LeBron-at-center lineups that were dreamt of when his decision was first made in the offseason saw an appearance against the Nuggets. Even though James has typically balked at the idea of jostling under the basket with 7-foot centers, it seems that he will have to embrace that role this year. The Lakers’ center rotation currently consists of JaVale McGee and Ivica Zubac, neither of whom are proven players during critical fourth-quarter moments.
On the offensive side, there were times when LeBron did not have much space to operate in the high post due to the lack of shooting. In the regular season, the best “LeBron-at-5 lineup” will ideally be Ball-Josh Hart-Kuzma-Brandon Ingram-James. With some development from Ball and Ingram, this should provide the offense enough shooting to stretch opposing defenses out and make plays.
These smaller lineups were challenged by Denver and one of the premier offensive centers in the league — Nikola Jokic. Los Angeles seemed content with switching everything, sometimes leaving the 6’5” Hart to defend Jokic in the post. Even though we only saw a few possessions featuring this kind of lineup, it proves that the Lakers are eager and prepared to play a modern brand of positionless basketball. That bodes well for their success this season and beyond.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].