Sun, Dec 15, 2019

LeBron James having the ball in his hands late in close games is not exactly a new phenomenon. It isn’t a foolish one either. Most teams that employ the best player in the NBA actually want him to run the offense. But the last four minutes of Wednesday’s Lakers‘ victory over the New Orleans Pelicans took that concept to its logical extreme. 

The Lakers had a total of seven offensive possessions (outside of intentional fouling situations) that ended in either a shot or foul in the final four minutes against the Pelicans. James controlled the offense on each of them. One resulted in a James field goal, a tip off of his own miss. Two more resulted in trips to the free-throw line for LeBron. One was a turnover, and another was a missed shot. The other two were passes that fed directly into shots. On both plays, James surrendered the ball only when a disadvantage in numbers presented itself. One came as a trap on a pick-and-roll with Anthony Davis

The second came when Brandon Ingram ditched Kyle Kuzma to help against James on a mismatched post-up. 

Both plays were born out of the same logic. Both James and Davis manage to face double-teams on the first. The only reason Davis doesn’t on the second is that he’s acting as a spacer. He’s doing so alongside Alex Caruso, generally treated as a non-shooter, and Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who are inconsistent at best. Defenses will live with shots out of them, especially when forced from aggressive defense against the two Laker superstars. 

But it’s telling that the only possession not directly controlled by James was an entry pass to Davis from Caruso that was knocked out of bounds. James, having spent most of the past decade playing alongside either Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving, is used to a layer of unpredictability in terms of crunch-time offense. He typically wound up taking most of the shots, but his teams had a deep menu of ways in which those shots could be generated. Defenses had to be aware of the possibility that someone else might make the game-winning play. 

The Lakers could place more of an emphasis on late-game ball-handling, but doing so would likely require playing Rajon Rondo, a liability behind the arc and as a defender. The former was ignored on Thursday, as Danny Green, viewed as a crunch-time lock entering the season, found himself on the bench. The latter was emphasized by way of Caruso, whose primary value comes on that end of the floor. 

But he isn’t the only player to earn late-game minutes based on defense. Dwight Howard has as well. In total, eight Lakers have earned meaningful looks in NBA-defined clutch situations, and Rondo will likely become the ninth at some point in the near future. 

Teams aren’t locked into a postseason closing five in November. There are benefits to experimentation. But the current construction of this roster has proven such experimentation distressingly necessary. Unlike, say, the Clippers, who know exactly what their primary lineup formulations would look like, the Lakers are performing delicate alchemy. 

Beyond their two superstars, every Laker has a glaring flaw. Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are archetypical three-and-D players on paper, but both are about as streaky as such players come. Rondo and Caruso can handle the ball but not shoot it. Playing an extra big makes the defense nigh immovable, but suffocates the offense. 

The Lakers could and should seek out balance through midseason moves. A ball-handling guard who can shoot would be essential in easing pressure on James, while also simplifying the job description of whoever plays next to him into one based primarily on defense. Individual specialization can create balance in the aggregate. 

But given the roster as presently built, the Lakers are going to be forced into compromises like overreliance on LeBron. Any closing group they might try is going to have some flaw in that vein. Those flaws are manageable against New Orleans. They won’t be against the Clippers, and that makes settling on a final five absolutely essential as the season progresses. 

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