Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, there are several characteristics that have come to define LeBron James-led teams.
The first is the constant presence of James himself: LeBron played in at least 84 percent of his team’s games each season, from his debut in 2003 through 2018, the final year of his second go-round with Cleveland in which he played all 82 games for the first time ever. The second is elite offense: Between 2008-09 and 2017-18, James’s teams ranked inside the top six in offensive rating every season, per NBA.com. The third is controlling pace: Between 2007 and 2017, James’s teams played every season at a pace that was slower than the league average, and for the most part played even slower during the playoffs.
And of course, his teams almost always had elite results. In every season between 2008-09 and 2017-18, James’s teams won at least 50 games1 and ranked inside the top seven in per-possession scoring differential. James’s teams went to the playoffs every year between 2005-06 and 2017-18, winning the Eastern Conference and advancing to the NBA Finals every year between 2011 and 2018.
The 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers had precisely none of these qualities nor achieved any of these results, which might explain why they spent this offseason essentially tearing down the house and rebuilding the roster from scratch.
The wheels started coming off on Christmas Day, when James suffered the first long-term injury of his career, and as a result ended up playing only 55 of 82 games — a career-low 67 percent of his team’s total. The Lakers finished the year with the NBA’s 24th-ranked offense, thanks in large part to his absence, but the 109.6 points per 100 possessions they scored with James on the floor was only the seasonlong equivalent of the league’s 17th-best offense anyway. And when it comes to pace, the Lakers were also an outlier: They played at a blisteringly fast 103.60 possessions per game, making them the fourth-fastest team in the league, and their 104.12-possession pace with James on the floor would have ranked second. That figure was also a full five possessions per game faster than any previous James team had played when he was in the game.2
And of course, because of James’s injury and the team’s generally poor performance even when he was healthy, the Lakers were far from elite. They won just 37 games, ranked 22nd in pace-adjusted scoring differential and not only failed to reach the Finals, but didn’t even make the playoffs.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the 2019-20 version of the Lakers will have less season-to-season continuity than just about any previous team LeBron has been a part of.3 The Lakers traded away three of James’s teammates during last season, shipping Svi Mykhailiuk to the Pistons and Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Clippers. They sent three more packing in the Anthony Davis trade, with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart heading to New Orleans. They waved goodbye to Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones as part of the same deal, sending the trio to Washington in order to clear enough cap space to make an ultimately futile run at signing Kawhi Leonard. With Reggie Bullock signing with the Knicks and Mike Muscala going to the Thunder, the Lakers have seen 11 players from last year’s roster head out the door.
Combined, those 11 players accounted for 7,609 of the team’s 17,844 non-LeBron minutes played last season. That’s 42.6 percent of the team’s total, meaning that once the player-movement moratorium ended, the Lakers could have returned players that accounted for a maximum 57.4 percent of their non-LeBron minutes played a year ago.
After the team did everything in its power to hang on to Kyle Kuzma and then re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso, the Lakers are now set to return players who accounted for 44.4 percent of those non-LeBron minutes. If you’re currently thinking to yourself, That sounds like an incredibly low total, congratulations; you’re correct. Just once in the 12 previous seasons where LeBron stayed with the same team did he return to a team that brought back players who accounted for an even smaller share of that team’s non-LeBron minutes played — and that was all the way back in his second season in the league.
|Year||Team||Share of non-Lebron minutes held over|
Alongside James and the returning quintet of role players, the Lakers now have Davis plus Danny Green, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley and second-round pick Talen Horton-Tucker under contract for next season. That leaves only one available roster spot — though they may want to keep it open for trades or two-way players, or to work the buyout market — so this is essentially the roster they will take into the regular season.
It’s notable that alongside James, Davis and the holdovers, L.A. has chosen to fill out its roster far differently than it did a year ago. Former team president Magic Johnson famously appeared on a Summer League broadcast last year and declared he had learned from watching the just-completed playoffs that toughness and playmaking — not shooting — were the primary traits necessary in players surrounding James. Johnson’s strategy marked a pivot away from a formula with a yearslong track record of success for LeBron-led teams, and it’s not all that shocking that the result was a disaster-level season where parts were ill-fitting from the jump, and James’s teammates shot significantly less often and converted at a significantly lower rate from behind the arc than they had in years.
Johnson is now gone and this offseason the Lakers appeared determined to avoid repeating his mistakes. They instead made a concerted effort to prioritize outside shooting after whiffing on Leonard. Green is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter who is coming off the single best shooting season of his career. Cook does not provide much in the way of off-the-bounce creativity and is nobody’s idea of a strong defender, but he has made 42 percent of his career triples. Daniels is almost strictly a catch-and-shoot specialist who has hit at a 40 percent rate. Dudley is a pick-and-pop and spot-up maestro who can play any frontcourt position and has made 39 percent of the threes he’s attempted across his decade-plus in the league. Cousins shot poorly last season in his return from a torn Achilles, but during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, he connected on 36 percent of his deep attempts while taking 5.5 per game. Even Bradley is streaky, but he carries a career 36 percent conversion rate from outside.
So although it’s lacking a third star and is not loaded up with recent lottery picks, this team now resembles the title-contending James squads of the recent past more closely than last year’s did. There’s James, of course, and another surefire All-Star in Davis. There’s also enough shooting to space the floor around that duo, and presumably to bring a LeBron-led team back into the league’s top 10 in offensive rating. This team may struggle to find its footing defensively, given James’ lax attitude toward regular-season defense and a lack of non-Davis rim protection, but on the other end, at least, they are replicating a formula that has worked for LeBron-led teams in the past. That’s likely a step in the right direction.
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