Lakers eyeing interesting strategy this season: taking the ball out of LeBron James' hands

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – As the Los Angeles Lakers’ first practice ended on Monday, coach Luke Walton huddled with his assistants. It’s been a busy offseason for Walton. He swapped phone calls with Erik Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue, two of LeBron James’ former coaches. He exhaustively studied film of Michael Beasley, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, cherry-picking plays that worked for them to incorporate into his system. And he tried to solve the riddle that is adapting one of the NBA’s fastest teams — the Lakers were second in the league in pace of play last season — with a superstar who for years has played slower.

“We know how we want to play,” Walton said. “We’ll see, set-wise, what works best for each group. But for our team, we definitely know how we want to play. That’s ball movement, player movement, put our guys in the best position to succeed.”

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In the aftermath of signing James, the Lakers did something surprising. Instead of surrounding James with shooters — a roster-building strategy used successfully in Miami and Cleveland — L.A. elected to sign playmakers. The thinking, team president Magic Johnson said, was that with more ball-handlers, there would more opportunities for the Lakers to run, and with more playmakers, the team wouldn’t be dependent on James creating offense in the halfcourt.

“We won’t just rely on LeBron making all the shots for people in terms of creating the shots for people,” Johnson said. “We want him also to play off of them.”

Said Walton: “We’re going to play fast. Whether it’s the same speed, faster, slower, we’ll get to know our team as training camp goes. We’re going to play fast. 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 number of guys we can throw at you.”

Indeed, the Lakers are built to play up-tempo. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are all athletic wing players who thrive in the open floor. Rondo is a gifted passer, while Stephenson can shift between both guard spots.

James likened the Lakers’ style to the system he played with the Heat.

The Lakers’ plan for LeBron James is to have him work off the ball more and have others create offense and make plays. (Getty)
The Lakers’ plan for LeBron James is to have him work off the ball more and have others create offense and make plays. (Getty)

“I think it will be kind of similar to Miami in a sense of we really got out and started with our defense, and got out and ran,” James said. “You get out and run, you’re able to get down the floor before they set their defense. There’s a lot of good defenses here in our league, so to be able to get stops and get out and run, you get down the floor before the defense gets set up. That’s what we did a lot in Miami. We started a lot with our defensive side, and if you defend, it gives you an advantage on the other end.”

A transition offense only works if you can get in transition, and while the Lakers were a serviceable defensive team last year — 12th in defensive efficiency — it could take time for the team to jell on that end of the floor.

And in the halfcourt, the Lakers’ offense remains a mystery. The first two days of camp were devoted entirely to defense. In scrimmages, Lakers assistants noted deflections and zeroed in on the communication defensively. Thus far, offense has not been a priority. Returning players understand the roster shakeup would change the Lakers’ style of play, but remain uncertain exactly how.

“I’m not sure what it will be,” Ingram said. “But I know I will be prepared for anything they throw out there.”

Walton has dropped hints as to what he expects when the game slows down. Sharper cutting, for example. Walton singled out Ingram as someone who needed to focus on moving without the ball. Ingram nearly doubled his scoring average in his second season, and his 3-point percentage jumped to a respectable 39 percent. Walton sees opportunity for Ingram to take advantage of the defensive attention James draws. JaVale McGee, an experienced rim runner, said the Lakers’ abundance of playmakers feels “like I’m at a buffet in Vegas.”

“That’s my job,” James said. “I know how guys like that ball. I watch a lot of film. They like low passes or high passes. Forehead or at the numbers. It’s my job to get it to them.”

Still, it’s unclear what the Lakers’ offensive identity will be. There is a smorgasbord of strengths. Rondo is a high-level pick-and-roll player. Will James, who has drifted between forward spots in recent years, be used as a screener? James has utilized spacing to create his own offense. Will Walton use James in a lineup with Rondo and Stephenson, two career 30 percent 3-point shooters?

“It will be interesting to see how much LeBron is willing to change his style,” an NBA pro personnel scout told Yahoo Sports. “If he is going to dominate the ball, with this roster, it won’t work. They have a lot of guys who want to dribble. Luke is going to have to work to get them to play together.”

Two days into camp, optimism is in the air. Players, coaches and executives rave about the intensity James brings. Rondo has embraced a role as a teacher. McGee spoke of the camaraderie that has already developed, something he has not experienced with other teams.

The offense, the Lakers say, will come. “We take some things that worked well for the people we have returning and we add new things,” said Walton. But L.A. is reinventing how you play with LeBron James. In a season full of questions, how the Lakers do it looms as one of the biggest ones.

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