The memes and the jokes wrote themselves. Shortly after LeBron James announced he would sign a four-year, $153 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday evening, his longtime ear-whisperer, Lance Stephenson, agreed to become his teammate.
Then came the signing of JaVale McGee, who’d been reimagined as a rim-protecting alley-ooper with the Golden State Warriors after spending much of his career one wrong move away from Shaquille O’Neal’s lowlight reel.
And on Monday, the coup de grace: One of the only point guards in the league whose shot is as fluky as Lakers youngster Lonzo Ball, who shot 36 percent from the field and just 30.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc last year, arrived with the famously prickly Rajon Rondo (46.8 percent FG, 33.3 percent 3-pointers).
Everything you thought you knew about the type of cast James preferred to play with — good shooters to stretch the floor around him, high basketball IQ veterans who could match wits with him — suddenly seemed off.
Just what in the hell were the Lakers doing?
Here is the answer: exactly what James and Lakers president Magic Johnson planned when they met for more than three hours on the first night of free agency. According to multiple sources within the Lakers and close to James, this is the rollout of a plan Johnson outlined for James the night of June 30 at James’ home. The signings, which sources say James has consulted on but have been executed at Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s direction, follow this vision.
It may seem to be an unconventional plan, considering current trends. It may be a plan that takes time to come together, especially early in the season when new habits will be tested. It may, in fact, be a plan that ultimately fails.
But the Lakers are indeed attempting to chart a new course for James’ Lakers future, one that is vastly different from the style of basketball he played with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Unlike most free agents changing teams, LeBron is arriving with the Lakers as an all-time great,” a source close to James said. “He doesn’t have pressure to prove anything. He wants some changes, and he can afford to let the process breathe.”
The Cavs were a team of specialists — many of them shooters — who were placed around the league’s ultimate Swiss Army knife. But at times, especially during the playoffs, it did have the feel that James was playing 1-on-5 and needing to play 48 minutes because he was the team’s only true creator and playmaker.
Cleveland also prioritized shooters and offense-minded players ahead of defenders and steadily sunk in the defensive rankings over the past three seasons, bottoming out as the No. 29 defensive efficiency team last season. This became a liability at times, particularly against the juggernaut Warriors.
What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself. Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile, as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches. That also follows with the talents of the 6-foot-6 Ball, who showed the ability to be an elite rebounder and defender for a guard in his rookie year.
“I know some people are rolling their eyes, but I like what the Lakers have done,” a rival Western Conference executive said. “You can find shooters. They’ve taken some in the last few drafts. Playmakers matter and are harder to find.”
None of this is to say the Lakers are content being the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league (35 percent), as they were last season. Or that adding a group of non-shooters with excess baggage will fix any of that.
The hope is that adding playmaking and playing at a fast pace mitigates some of those inefficiencies. Last season, according to Second Spectrum, the young Lakers played at the third-fastest pace in the league (102.6 possessions per 48 minutes) and averaged 22.6 points per game in transition, trailing only the Warriors.
No team with LeBron James has even ranked in the top 10 in pace of play in his career. But last season, James made the second-most transition buckets in the NBA (185) behind only Russell Westbrook, according to Second Spectrum. James also was one of two players to record 400 transition points, along with Westbrook.
The Lakers hope there is a synergy in those skill sets somewhere.
The other key to this new vision for James and the Lakers is a recognition that his game will need to change as he ages over the next four years.
James, who will turn 34 in December, had studied the careers of all-time greats such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and noted how they moved from the wing to the post as they approached their mid-30s. Bryant, for example, averaged 5.5 post-ups a game in his age-36 season in 2014-15 (most among guards) and 2.9 post-ups a game in his age-37 season (still fifth-most among guards).
James’ play in the post has ebbed and flowed over the past decade. He has developed his skills playing there, but has always been pulled to operating from the perimeter, where he’s more comfortable and where his teams often need him.
If there was one person who could understand and relate, it was Johnson, a 6-foot-9 point guard who once started an NBA Finals game at center.
Playing more like Bryant and Jordan will take time and patience, and James told Johnson that some habits will be hard to break, sources said. But James knows playing more inside and yielding some control of the ball is important as he ages and his athleticism starts to fade. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds with great vision and passing skills, he may be better equipped for success than the smaller Jordan and Bryant.
Beyond James’ role, the Lakers realize they have a young team and see adding Rondo as a key piece to provide leadership besides James. The Lakers noticed an immediate impact when Isaiah Thomas joined the team last year (ironically after a trade from James’ Cavs). His veteran presence had an effect on all their young players and reinforced what the coaches had been preaching. Coach Luke Walton would often compliment Thomas for mentoring the young players. They are hoping it will be the same with Rondo, who also acts as an insurance policy on Ball, who missed 30 games with injury last season.
The Lakers also have several moves left to play, including a pursuit of Kawhi Leonard via trade. All parties agree they need more shooting and those type of moves may be coming.
July plans often go up in smoke during the grind of a season. But James is absolutely on board with these unexpected transactions as hints of a rather different-looking No. 23 emerge for next season.