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What it actually looks like when LeBron James has no playmakers on the Lakers

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The Lakers are feeling the cost of a lack of playmakers early in Anthony Davis’ tenure.

LeBron James looking frustrated on the court with the Lakers.
LeBron James and the Lakers have some issues to sort out.

With just over nine minutes left in the third quarter of the first battle for Los Angeles supremacy, Kawhi Leonard bricked a baseline fadeaway jumper over JaVale McGee’s long outstretched arm. Avery Bradley grabbed the board and handed the ball to LeBron James. As he sprinted down the left wing, Danny Green urged The King to turn on the jets.

Green had spotted a potential weak spot in the Clippers’ defense. McGee had already dusted Ivica Zubac down the court, so Clippers guard Landry Shamet held his position to prevent any pass to McGee before Zubac could catch up. Meanwhile, Shamet’s own man, Green, ran up the other side of the court, forcing Patrick Patterson to rush away from his man, Anthony Davis, to cover the right wing. For an instant, Shamet was confused. Where was he supposed to go next?

The pieces were in place to give the Lakers a dream scenario. Their two superstars were in the middle of the floor, with only Patrick Beverley there to address them. The chance to overload Beverley with two superstars and force the Clippers to help or give up a dunk was there. All that LeBron needed to do was force the issue, and Green knew it. If he did, all the other dominos would fall.

But LeBron didn’t heed Green’s advice, continuing at his measured pace. In the time it took for James to reach the three-point line to set up a screen and roll with Davis, Patterson was able to direct Shamet into position to aid Beverley. The chance was wasted.

The actual cost of James’ lack of urgency was minimal. The Lakers kept the ball, fed Davis for his 700th post-up of the game, and watched him draw a foul. Still, the sequence provided a brief illustration of the roster’s biggest weakness, one left in place out of misguided hope that James himself could fill its void. As James said himself in a different context 33 months ago, his team needs a fucking playmaker. But this time, his team needs one even more, and the sequence with Green shows why.

When James uttered those famous words, he was annoyed with the minute burden he and fellow Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving had to carry. His wish was modest: an experienced, steady hand that could run an offense for 15 minutes a game to help them rest. The kind of player Rajon Rondo currently is, if you will. At least James had Irving, an incisive dribbling genius that allowed James to play different roles, and, crucially, sped the ball up the court to put immediate pressure on defenses.

This Lakers team, on the other hand, has nothing close to that type of player. That absence creates a number of other issues that will cap the offensive ceiling of a team with James, Davis, and terrific spot-up shooting.

Chief among them: an inability to generate easy buckets in transition. It wasn’t your imagination on Tuesday: the Lakers changed ends very slowly. Their average time of possession off missed shots was 11.71 seconds, the second-slowest mark in the league behind the Chris Paul-led Oklahoma City Thunder. (For comparison’s sake: the slowest team in the league off missed shots over the course of last year clocked in at 11.72 seconds). The Clippers’ transition defense is solid, but the Lakers should be able to strike quicker than that with Davis and McGee sprinting the lane and James theoretically freight-training his way to the basket. But without a lead ball-handler, there’s nobody to actually provide that thrust.

James could be that person, but he tends to conserve energy when he’s also forced to run the half-court offense. Countless break opportunities fizzled out for the very reason Green’s pleas fell on deaf ears: James kept coming back for the ball on rebounds instead of running the wing and trusting someone else to bring the ball up. With nobody else adept at advancing the ball into the frontcourt, James played like he had to control the entire game himself. Maneuvers like this wasted too much time.

The Lakers’ transition stagnation bled into their half-court offense as well. James is a brilliant passer, but he’s also the kind of player that likes to calmly survey the floor and manipulate openings rather than putting constant pressure on the defense with continuous attacks. That’s one hell of a skill when all else fails, but as an offense unto itself, it’s slow as hell. LA’s average offensive possession took up a whopping 15.81 seconds of the shot clock in the season opener, the most in the league.

If everyone else has to wait for James to survey the situation and go, there’s little room for the kind of spontaneity and flow every half-court offense needs. Consider this play a few minutes after the squandered fast break. As James sized up Montrezl Harrell on a pick-and-roll switch, three Lakers shooters — Green, Avery Bradley, and Davis — clustered on the opposite side of the court. James’ plan was simple: drive at Harrell, draw help, and kick to one of the three. He assumed they’d stand still, because that’s the kind of spacing Point LeBron needs.

Instead, Green instinctively darted toward the top of the key to further confuse defenders, expecting the other two to follow his lead and cut into the space he vacated. But they didn’t, so James threw the ball away thinking his shooters would be in position. As the play ended, James looked incredulous that his teammates weren’t in the positions he scripted.

Again: LeBron + stationary shooters is a great change of pace. Whenever Irving sat in Cleveland, the Cavaliers spread the floor with shooting and let LeBron find any opening he pleased. They could afford to stuff their lineups with shooters in those situations because the other team didn’t have their best lineups in either. They hit opponents with Irving’s constant scoring threat on the one hand, then use LeBron + shooting as a changeup. The Lakers, on the other hand, must use James’ deliberate playmaking as their fastball, and it’s a slow fastball at that.

The lack of additional playmakers also exacerbates a more obvious Lakers concern: Davis’ insistence on playing power forward instead of center. So far, the Lakers have largely acquiesced to those wishes, using one of McGee or Dwight Howard alongside Davis. It’s easy to see how this decision handicaps the Lakers’ half-court offense. It’s hard to maximize Davis’ devastating rolls to the rim when McGee or Howard is occupying space near the basket.

The best way around this self-imposed problem is for all five players to constantly move and shift the defense around. If there’s less space there to exploit, you better act quickly to take advantage of the small cracks that do appear. This is how the Spurs managed the league’s sixth-best offense last year despite refusing to join the three-point revolution, and it’s why Green urged James forward on that third-quarter possession. A small crack was appearing, and the Lakers needed to take advantage right away.

But if LeBron is the only reliable perimeter shot creator, the team will not play like that. It’ll instead play more like this, with James holding the ball and running a series of diagnostics to find the right path through while four other players wait to take their cues from him. This is an after-timeout play!

For short stretches — especially in close games late in the fourth quarter — this slow and deliberate approach is incredibly valuable. As a full-time offense, though, it’s too predictable. Not only does it require LeBron to control too much of the game at his advanced state, but it also reduces the talents of the other four players on the court. It’s no accident Green’s three-point barrage in the season opener accelerated when James left the game in the third quarter. That was when Green got himself into a rhythm by moving around, rather than standing and waiting for James to feed him.

There’s no Kyrie-level playmaker joining the Lakers’ roster anytime soon, so coach Jank Kiddogel needs to make lemonade out of unripe lemons to solve their playmaking problem. Step 1 appears to be elevating Rondo, who missed the opener due to a minor injury, into the starting lineup for certain matchups. Rondo’s appeal as an actual point guard that will advance the ball quickly up the court is understandable, and those qualities are in short supply on the roster. But Rondo isn’t very useful once he gets there, so he’ll only further cramp the Lakers’ limited space.

There are other marginal solutions Kiddogel can eventually use. The return of Kyle Kuzma from a foot injury may not solve the ball-handling issue, but it should add some off-ball chaos to the Lakers’ offense. Like Green, Kuzma is an adept cutter and wing runner that can sneak into the small cracks LeBron’s deliberate approach presents. He needs to improve at the rather fundamental skill of actually putting the ball in the basket when open beyond the arc, but at least he can add an element of zip that’ll speed up the Lakers’ half-court offense.

Finally, Kiddogel could limit Davis’ post-up possessions to a more sensible number instead of the seven zillion he called in the season opener. Even with limited spacing, a James-Davis pick-and-roll is LA’s best means for scoring points and triggering the supplementary ball movement that will make LA more dynamic. As the season opener proved, posting Davis up over and over and over and over and over and over again eventually yields diminishing returns.

But none of these solutions can fully hide the larger playmaking issue with the Lakers’ roster. In James’ first summer, the Lakers foolishly signed a bunch of mediocre ball-handlers who couldn’t shoot. Things are better with Davis in town, but otherwise, the Lakers have merely overcorrected last year’s error.