Barring something unforeseen, Lonzo Ball will make his preseason debut on Wednesday night when the Lakers play the Warriors in Las Vegas. That’s welcome news for Ball—who hasn’t played in anything more taxing than a controlled scrimmage since undergoing surgery in July for a torn meniscus in his left knee—and it will afford head coach Luke Walton his first look at how last year’s team leader in assists per game pairs with two all-time great passers in LeBron James and Rajon Rondo.
“It feels like a long time,” Ball said on Tuesday when a reporter informed him he’d been out 195 days. “I’m just happy to get back on the court. It gets frustrating when you play basketball your whole life and it gets taken away from you.”
There’s been debate about whether Ball is a perfect fit for James at this stage of his career or whether there might be cause for concern. After practice earlier this week at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo, James didn’t seem too worried. Under Walton, James said, the overarching idea on offense is to “get that ball moving from side to side” and “get a lot of passes in the possession.”
That’s something Ball can certainly do. He averaged 7.2 assists in 52 games as a rookie, but a more telling stat is that he led all point guards in least time per touch, per NBA.com/Stats. His natural inclination is to keep the ball in motion. Ball is also a good rebounder (6.9 per game), which means one more guy who can grab the ball off the glass and immediately push it up the floor—something the Lakers emphasized last season (they were third in the league in pace) and hope to continue in this campaign. As James put it, Ball knows what the Lakers system is designed to do “better than anybody”: Defend. Rebound. Get out and run. Share the ball. James figured Ball will be excited to get back on the floor—but beyond that he said “I don’t think anything changes.”
“When you have two born point guards—they were just born to be point guards, you know, running the show—it just puts people in their respective and their right positions,” James said about playing with Ball and Rondo. “And they command that.”
It’s often hard to tell how new pieces—especially point guards—will work alongside LeBron until he gets a good look at them and decides whether they fit the puzzle or are better off discarded. As former Cavs teammate Channing Frye once explained, LeBron does so much on the court that “everyone else fits into a role.” Mario Chalmers issued a similar declaration when James left Miami to return to Cleveland. Chalmers called LeBron “a dominant player” and predicted “it’s going to be a different factor for Kyrie [Irving].” Things worked out well enough for James and Irving—they won a championship and made three straight NBA Finals together—but Kyrie eventually decided he’d rather play elsewhere and leveraged his way out of town.
Irving is undoubtedly the best point guard James has played with through his 15-season career. That’s a compliment to Kyrie, whose long-distance shooting and creativity off the dribble perfectly complemented James’s game. But Irving doesn’t have much in the way of competition when it comes to determining the best playmaker to play with James over the years.
During his first tour in Cleveland—from the 2003-04 season through 2009-10—some of the point guards James played with included Jeff McInnis, Kevin Ollie, Eric Snow, Damon Jones, Larry Hughes, Delonte West, and Mo Williams. They ended up in the box scores with the PG designation next to their names, but that was largely ceremonial. In function, James frequently served as the primary point guard for those teams.
The same was true when LeBron left Cleveland for a four-year sabbatical in South Beach. Things were bad enough for the Heat during James’s first season in Miami that the team signed a clearly washed Mike Bibby after he cleared waivers and started him in 20 of 21 playoff games. Bibby averaged 3.7 points, 1.2 assists, and 20.8 minutes that postseason. The year after that, the Heat said thanks but no thanks and Bibby signed with the Knicks. The year after that, he was out of basketball and on his way to making Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade lose their shit over his new look.
For most of James’s time in Florida, the official point guard duties fell to Chalmers and Norris Cole. Cole was primarily the backup and started just 12 regular-season games in three seasons with LeBron. During that period Cole averaged 6.2 points, 2.4 assists, and 21.4 minutes. Between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, Chalmers started every game he was healthy enough to play in. Over that three-season span, Chalmers averaged 9.4 points, 4.0 assists, and 28.4 minutes. Like most of the point guards to play with LeBron, Chalmers was just sort of … present. That wasn’t always a good thing for him. Unofficially, he shot to the top of the LeBron aggravation rankings. When I Googled “LeBron Mario Chalmers,” this was the top result:
The point guard situation was much better for James when he returned to Cleveland in 2014-15. For the first time in his career, he was paired with a significant contributor rather than someone who was just sort of … present. With LeBron back in Cleveland, Irving made two All-Star teams and was named third-team All-NBA in 2014-15 (the only time Irving has made the all-league list). It should also be noted that the Cavs had Matthew Dellavedova for a time; he was scrappy and annoying and good for GIFs, if nothing else. In the end, despite winning a championship together, the best point guard who ever played with LeBron decided he’d rather play somewhere else. Back in a media session during the 2016-17 Eastern Conference finals, Irving openly daydreamed about having his own team rather than sharing one with James. Irving didn’t expressly say it, but the implication was obvious: you can be the point guard on LeBron’s team, but you’ll never really run the show.
Cleveland took a disastrous 15-game look at Isaiah Thomas a season ago, sprinkled in some Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon for reasons that surpass understanding, then traded for George Hill, who averaged all of 2.8 assists. None of which went well, unless you’re using unintentional comedy as the main metric, at which point the Cavs led the league.
Which makes the Lakers situation all the more intriguing. After Irving, Rondo and Ball are pretty safely the best point guards that have ever been on a LeBron-led team. If the two of them can prove themselves consistent and useful, it could free up LeBron to periodically help fill some of the Lakers’ other gaps. But even then, we still can’t be sure how the playmaking duties will be delegated. James is seventh all time in usage rate and 11th all time in assists. He’s amazing with the ball in his hands and can make every possible pass—from cross-court looks that make your jaw drop to ridiculous dimes he leaves for himself. How will his game mesh with Rondo, who’s also a magician as a passer and ranks 23rd on the all-time assist list but is generally more effective when he has the ball? And what might it mean for Ball’s development?
On Tuesday, Ball said “Rondo and LeBron gonna lead us; I’ll be on the second team trying to lead them.” That’s for now, though Walton was quick to point out that he could “possibly” envision Ball starting at some point because “it’s a long season.” The main takeaway there is that they’re still mixing and matching, and it doesn’t seem like anything has been definitively determined. As Walton explained, he wants Rondo and Ball and all the Lakers not named LeBron to feel like they’re competing for jobs—because they are. “Iron sharpens iron, that kind of thing,” Walton said.
Walton and James have repeatedly said during the preseason that Rondo will be a terrific defensive asset, whether playing with LeBron or Lonzo, or whether their minutes are staggered and they’re shuttled in and out depending on game flow. The fit at the offensive end is obviously less certain. It would help if Rondo could space the floor with his shot, but after 12 seasons that’s probably unlikely (he’s a career 30.9 percent shooter from 3-point range on an average of 1.2 attempts a game). Ball is another matter. He shot 30.5 percent from distance as a rookie (on 5.7 attempts per game), but got better as the season went on. After November, Ball hit 33.2 percent of his 3-pointers. He also made 33.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3 attempts. He spent the offseason working on a shooting form that was previously hideous and is now slightly less so. (Magic Johnson called Ball’s new form “beautiful,” because of course he did.)
In the ZOne pic.twitter.com/5VIcrw1Y3v— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 8, 2018
For perhaps just the second time in his career, James will have a capable point guard by his side. Two, actually. How the three men mix (or don’t) will go a long way toward determining what these Lakers can achieve. As Chalmers and Frye once pointed out, playing with James requires you to adjust—not the other way around.
Since coming to the Lakers, James has called himself “a team-first guy” who loves “passing the ball” and “sharing the ball.” As it pertains to playing with Rondo and Ball, he said he was certain that Walton and the coaching staff would “let us know what they would like from us and how we can be great.” Except James is already great, maybe even the greatest ever, and he’s far more likely to dictate what happens than anyone else. As LeBron said himself only a few weeks ago, “my game does not change no matter who I’m alongside.”