Are the Lakers Relying Too Heavily on LeBron?
Yes, the Lakers rely too much on LeBron. But this is exactly what they should do.
There’s a unique struggle felt by a LeBron James-team that most great teams don’t have trouble with. In general, great teams find a way to win even when their best player is unavailable. They need their ace to ultimately win, but aren’t overly dependent on his production for regular season victories.
Last year’s Toronto Raptors missed Kawhi Leonard for 22 games in the regular season and went 17-5 in those games. Kevin Durant missed a total of 38 regular season games as a Golden State Warrior. The Warriors were 28-10 when he sat.
But LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers are not like most great teams, and they predictably fell to the Denver Nuggets roughly a week ago, and again to the Clippers on Christmas featuring a hobbled LeBron (9-24 overall shooting). And even though they are just two games, they hint that these Lakers are much like LeBron’s teams from the past: they need LeBron on the floor to be great.
Case in point, the 2015-2016 Cavaliers missed LeBron for six games in the regular season. They went 2-4, despite having two other all-stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on their squad. This team was very reliant on LeBron for victory.
Still, they ultimately won the championship that year.
If anything, this highlights how teams that are overly reliant on LeBron James to win are not necessarily faulty in their approach.
Moreover, a LeBron James-team, one could argue, has to be overly dependent on LeBron if it is doing things right. Any team featuring LeBron that wants to give itself a genuine chance to win it all has to build the roster to perfectly conform to feed off LeBron’s strength. LeBron needs guys to finish his pick-and-rolls and drill threes off his kick-out passes.
So that’s what the Lakers went out and constructed this summer: a near-perfect LeBron James-team, filled with guys who can finish the offense that LeBron James starts.
They have Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and others to finish from three. They have Javale McGee and Dwight Howard to finish at the rim. A group of competent players who complement LeBron very well.
But therein lies the dilemma. This team almost exclusively features “finishers” who need LeBron to initiate the plays that they eventually finish. So when LeBron is on the floor, the Lakers look like a championship contender. But when he sits or is struggling through injury, they look like much less. They aren’t bad. They are just average. And they got beat by some very good Nuggets and Clippers teams.
A team with mostly “finishers” isn’t anything new for LeBron. His Miami Heat and Cavaliers teams were very much like that. But these Lakers are very different in one specific sense than any team LeBron has played on this decade. This team has no other ball-handler/creator to generate offense when LeBron sits.
LeBron had Dwyane Wade and Irving to carry that burden in his previous two stops, respectively. The Lakers are completely bereft of anyone to fill this role (Rajon Rondo is no longer good enough to properly occupy that spot).
So if LeBron’s previous teams relied too heavily on him for wins, this current Lakers team is exponentially more reliant on him. He is their only source of offensive creation.
An interesting wrinkle to this, though, is that the Lakers feature another top-5 player in Anthony Davis. He can create his own shot as well as play off others. Yet, they still struggle in LeBron-absent lineups.
Davis is arguably better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving as LeBron’s number two. But Wade and Irving offered a different dynamic to their respective offenses because their success could come independent of LeBron, even when LeBron was on the court. Davis was brought in because, while he is an incredible singular talent, he could perfectly complement LeBron. In other words, Davis is most dangerous when being another “finisher” of Lebron’s.
It all comes back to LeBron, regardless of the talent on the roster. But again, this isn’t a bad thing. A team that has the pleasure to feature LeBron on its roster must make arrangements to maximize its chance to win. That means formulating a LeBron-centric roster that fully hinges on his production, energy, and ultimately, health.
It’s the only way with LeBron. A true double-edged sword. If all goes right, homerun. If not, well, strikeout.