LEBRON JAMES HAS LOOKED more like the LeBron James of old over the past few weeks. Well, other than Tuesday night.
His scoring is way up and his impact on Los Angeles Lakers games has surged, too. Not coincidentally, they’ve been winning more. They’ve won seven of 10 even after their 32-point loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Is it because he has become more comfortable in his new surroundings? Sure, that probably is playing some role.
Is it because his teammates are learning how to play alongside him and vice versa? No doubt.
But that doesn’t seem to be the real basis of it. What seems to have gotten James back into the groove is that he’s back in his comfort zone playing lots of point guard again. It hasn’t been framed this way but that’s what he has been doing increasingly as the season has aged, and especially after Rajon Rondo went down because of a broken hand.
Since Rondo had to leave a game in Portland and subsequently have surgery, James is handling the ball almost a minute more per game than before, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. This is a significant spike because the Lakers have so many possessions where they push the ball in transition that ballhandling stats can be a little skewed. During this span James has increased his scoring average five points a game.
In fact, his stats have improved across the board, especially his shooting, which has soared since Rondo went down. The Lakers are benefiting. Even “official starting point guard” Lonzo Ball is filling the lanes on fast breaks and coming out of his shell at James’ urging.
Advance scouts who have been tracking the Lakers report that Ball frequently becomes an off guard when James is in the game with him. It’s enough to wonder if this arrangement is truly their destiny of playing together in the future, especially if Ball is able to improve his outside shooting and show a willingness to drive the ball, as he has in recent games. Though Ball suffered a sprained ankle Tuesday, which may slow him down temporarily and add even more ball-handling duty for James in the near term.
This is probably because having the ball and controlling the offense is the way James has been conditioned to play for most of the past 15 seasons. He has won MVPs and titles operating as the de facto point guard. That’s who he is, even if it has a tendency to mentally and physically exhaust him at times.
James grumbled to Cavs management about the need to have more playmakers on the roster to ease this burden in recent years. It wasn’t that the Cavs coaches and front office ignored him — it was just that all their data showed they were better when James was the primary playmaker. They were sorry/not sorry about not taking the ball from him.
When James came to the Lakers, he relished the idea of being able to play off the ball more, to use his post-up skills and to generally expend less energy. That was the idea behind signing Rondo, and Lance Stephenson … it would ease the need for James to do as much creating.
But as those who have been around James over the years will tell you, there is the July version of James when he’s sitting on a couch with a glass of wine and talking basketball philosophy. And there’s the midseason version of James who wants to win above all else and trusts himself above all others to make it happen. As is typical, the latter has been showing itself as the games pile up.
When Rondo has been active and he and Ball have split point guard duties, some of that has happened. When playing alongside Rondo, James had been averaging less time of possession in games than players such as Zach LaVineand Jamal Murray. When Rondo has been out, James’ ballhandling time is up there with John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. Basically, where he has been for years.
And those post-ups? James is averaging half as many post-ups per game as he did with the Cavs. He can’t post because most of the time the Lakers are either fast breaking or relying on James to be the playmaker on offense.
The scouts also have noticed that when James is running the point, he rarely looks toward the bench to receive playcalls from coach Luke Walton. Even when he has seen them, the scouts say, he ignores them and runs the play he prefers. Walton has adjusted, and now when James is running the show, Walton will typically just let him call the game. This probably shouldn’t be considered a slight — it’s just James being James.
In fact, Walton has done a good job of limiting James’ minutes and using the depth he has in the backcourt to attempt to ease the burden so James can be a bit fresher. He’s averaging a career-low 35 minutes.
Even if it took a bit for Walton to figure out exactly how James was comfortable in the rotation. There was a game in Minnesota early in the season when Walton removed James just five minutes into the game in an effort to set the rotation so James could finish each quarter. James was, to put it mildly, mystified.
Bottom line, things are trending more positively for the Lakers. James getting back into his comfort zone, whether it was in the original game plan or not, is helping.