LeBron James knew when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers that they weren’t going to play like either the Cleveland Cavaliers team he left or the Golden State Warriors team that has become the bane of his championship-chasing existence. James’s agreement with Magic Johnson in early July reportedly came with the understanding that the Lakers were going to build a different sort of team—one stocked not with the sort of long-range shooters long considered a prerequisite for maximizing LeBron’s peerless court vision and passing skills, but rather with complementary ball handlers who might be able to lighten the staggering playmaking load he’s had to carry over the years.
Along with the young core already in place, the Lakers brought in the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley. The master plan was essentially a zig when everyone else in the NBA is zagging toward shooting, even behemoths like Andre Drummond. That can be a really smart idea; it’s been the tactical underpinning of an awful lot of advancements in an awful lot of fields. It carries some risk, though, and the Lakers just got a glimpse of why.
The Lakers began the LeBron era on Thursday with a 128-119 loss to the Trail Blazers in Portland. (Oddly enough, every new LeBron era has started with a defeat. He also lost his first career game in Sacramento in 2003, his first game as a member of the Miami Heat in 2010, and his first game back in Cleveland in 2014.) James played well—26 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists (albeit against six turnovers)—and made one hell of an introductory statement early in the first quarter:
ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF, MY NAME IS BRON pic.twitter.com/6bDN8kGBhJ— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 19, 2018
True to their word, the Lakers hewed to the approach preferred by both Luke Walton and Magic Johnson, running like hell and pushing the ball in transition at every opportunity. Thursday’s game was the fastest of the young NBA season to date, played at a pace of 113.5 possessions. (The league’s top pace last season was 101.6 possessions.) LeBron and Co. put relentless pressure on the rim, taking 53 of their 93 field goal attempts in the lane and scoring 70 points in the paint. Stylistically, they did what they were built to do.
And they lost—not in a blowout, not overwhelmingly, but pretty comfortably—partly because a roster full of suspect shooters couldn’t hit a 3-pointer for the first 34 minutes of the game, and partly because they couldn’t string together stops against a Blazers offense whose two top options, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, combined to shoot 15-for-38 from the field.
The Lakers clearly announced their intentions to host a track meet from the opening minutes: JaVale McGee dunked so hard on Jusuf Nurkic that I believe Nurk now has to concede his starting spot to his hairless cat, and LeBron sandwiched his very loud first two Lakers buckets around a driving slam by Lillard. The Blazers obliged, staying stride for stride thanks to 13 first-quarter points from Lillard and then gaining some separation in the second quarter behind a surge from none other than “Sauce Castillo” himself:
Stauskas, now on his fourth NBA team in five seasons, had an out-of-body experience, quickly scoring 16 points on six shots, including four from beyond the 3-point arc, to put Portland up 10. The Lakers caught the Blazers in the third and briefly took the lead. But L.A. kept clanging away on 3s while Portland kept making enough to overcome the Lakers’ advantage in points scored in the paint and on the fast break.
Want the game in a nutshell? Here you go:
With just under four and a half minutes remaining, the Lakers run an inverted pick-and-roll, with Rondo screening for James, then rolling into the paint. LeBron delivers a bounce pass to Rondo in the lane, forcing Stauskas to dig down from the far corner as the help defender tasked with stopping the ball. But Rondo makes a quick and perfect short-roll feed out to the corner, where Brandon Ingram, Stauskas’s man, is now wide open. The pass hits Ingram right in the hands; he has time to gather, rise, and fire. He misses it. Lillard grabs the rebound and throws a hit-ahead pass to Stauskas, who finds McCollum wide open in the corner. He hits it. What could’ve been a five-point deficit instead became 11 with four minutes to play—all because one team could shoot straight and the other one couldn’t.
Let’s repeat the most popular refrain of the opening week of the season: One game doesn’t necessarily mean anything. No matter how iffy their collection of shooters, it’s unlikely the Lakers will continue missing 77 percent of their 3s. (For what it’s worth, no team has shot that poorly from long range for a full season since the Washington Bullets in 1990.) It’s unlikely they will regularly face a frustrated former lottery pick transformed by fate into A Flaming Sword of 3-Point Vengeance whose unpredictable explosion sends Vivek Ranadivé into convulsions about what might have been. These are things that LeBron, Walton, and the rest of the Lakers probably won’t have to worry about when they take the court each night from now on.
But there are legitimate concerns coming out of Thursday, and they’re largely the same ones that many had heading into the opener. There was skepticism about the way the Lakers chose to build their roster this summer; this is why.
The Lakers played one actual center in the opener. While McGee performed well—13 points on 5-for-6 shooting, eight rebounds, three blocks, a steal, and an assist; he played with great energy and solid interior defense, and completely flustered Nurkic down low—he also played only 21.5 minutes. Kyle Kuzma and James split the rest of the minutes at the 5, and whenever Kuzma was in the middle, the Blazers made a point of making a beeline to the front of the rim. (That was especially true for Evan Turner, who looked very comfortable as Portland’s sixth man, posting up Lonzo Ball and orchestrating things as the point guard of what was a very effective second unit.) Heavy doses of small-ball also hurt L.A. on the glass, as the Blazers turned 14 offensive rebounds into 21 second-chance points.
If you can credibly protect the rim for only half the game, you’re going to have some problems. If you can’t stall dribble penetration, you’re going to have some problems. If you can’t stop your opponents from rebounding 27 percent of their misses, you’re going to have some problems. And if you have all those defensive flaws and you can’t hit 3-pointers, you’re going to have a lot of problems, because as we learned Thursday, it’s pretty tough to win shootouts when the other guys’ shots are worth one more than the 2s you’re tallying. (One wonders whether Walton will wind up considering some rotation adjustments if the shots don’t start falling—like, for example, finding some minutes for rookie Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 guard who made 44.4 percent of his 3s at Kansas last season.)
That doesn’t mean the Lakers reboot won’t work, or that the team won’t be a remarkably fun watch night to night, or that this year’s model—which is very clearly not the finished product, but rather a prototype intended to be adjusted and augmented for a proper rollout down the line—won’t be good enough to win a lot of games. It just means it’s going to be harder, and that the margin of error is slimmer, because of Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s preferred path to building around LeBron in Year 1. As much fun as it is to be the renegade who zigs, sometimes, the issue isn’t that all the others are just sheep. Sometimes, it’s that there’s a pretty good reason everyone started zagging in the first place.