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The Key to the Lakers’ Future Is LeBronzo

LeBron James’s L.A. tenure is off to a rough start. To get better now and later, the Lakers should pair James with Lonzo Ball as much as possible.

LeBron James and Lonzo Ball Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James’s past point guards tended to be of the shoot-first variety. For the most part, the approach worked—in the last minute of the 2016 Finals, Kyrie Irving, a point guard by name but an isolation dynamo by trade, was the one draining the clutch 3-pointer. But it often felt like LeBron was taking turns with Irving, rather than playing within the natural flow of the offense. The partnership was never ideal for a legend who demands the ball as much as the King.

I’ve long believed that Lonzo Ball could be the perfect point guard for James. Lonzo is unlike any 1 that James has played with: Ball’s shot is a question, yet he has the vision to see plays unfold before they do, and throws dimes with velocity and accuracy. LeBron’s presence means he’ll possess the ball the majority of the time he’s on the court, so sharing the floor with a pass-first point guard who moves the ball quickly could provide a better balance. Ball’s skills as a cutter, rebounder, and defender make him a natural role player and a good complement to LeBron. After a delayed start due to Ball’s recovery from offseason knee surgery, the duo has already shown flashes of on-court synergy.

James and Ball have shared the court for 145 minutes, and they’ve displayed chemistry passing the ball to each other. Ball, in particular, has done a good job of firing outlet passes to James following stops. Last Thursday, in a Lakers win over the Nuggets, Ball had his best game of the season. He scored only 12 points but made clutch shots and timely defensive plays. He defended well man-to-man, drew a charge, caused multiple deflections, and rebounded. Ball has such a knack for the ball that he’ll beat players to rebounds and loose balls and then turn it into transition offense. James, meanwhile, dominated, as usual. It’s what I imagined the tandem could be.

But it hasn’t all gone smoothly. Rajon Rondo earned the starting job in training camp, and though Ball took it back when Rondo was suspended for three games, Rondo finished the past two games while Ball was relegated to the bench. Distributing minutes and determining rotations among a deep roster (aside from the center position) has been a difficult task for Lakers head coach Luke Walton. Through seven games, Ball’s minutes average has dropped from 34.2 last season to 27.3. And, unsurprisingly, his time possessing the ball has decreased, from 5.2 minutes per game last season to 2.6 (or a projected 3.3 over 34.2 minutes, to account for the differential in minutes). Lonzo’s greatest value is his playmaking, and if the touches won’t be there for him to showcase it at the level he can, he needs to contribute elsewhere.

Ball showed what he can be defensively against the Nuggets, but there have been too many times this season when he’s been invisible—particularly Monday in a loss to the Timberwolves. Ball has stood around during rebounds, missed rotations, fallen asleep off the ball, and moved sluggishly defending the perimeter. Maybe Ball is still returning to form after his offseason surgery, but his miscues often look like they are a result of effort and focus, and not his health. Ball can be the best defender on the Lakers, but he needs to bring it consistently to help a team that sorely needs it. It’s understandable that Rondo closed over Ball; the youngster didn’t earn it all game. “There’s different techniques and we try them all,” Walton said Tuesday. “Whether it’s being hard on him, encouraging him, running more plays for him. It’s just something where he’s a young point guard and we’re gonna continue to monitor it.”

An active Ball equals rebounds, steals, and deflections, which leads to more transition opportunities. Ball should also be more involved offensively, even if he isn’t dribbling the ball up the floor to initiate sets. The Lakers could simply look at how UCLA used Ball off the ball in his lone season there. Sets were drawn up that utilized Ball’s athleticism near the rim, and he was empowered to seize cutting opportunities when the defense was sleeping. So far this season, Ball has logged only four shots off cuts.

Players have bad games. It happens to MVPs, never mind 21-year-old point guards like Ball. But too often this season I’ve watched and wondered, “Where’s Lonzo?”

That’s something I’ve never asked before. Ball made an impact in multiple areas in college, and then was a primary ball handler and a consistent defender who rebounded as a rookie. But Lonzo has been fading lately, just like many of his teammates. But despite their 2-5 start, the Lakers have been outscored by only a measly 0.3 points per 100 possessions, and every loss has come against a playoff team from last season. If LeBron James had hit his free throws in the first bout against the Spurs or if Jimmy Butler hadn’t hit multiple heavily contested shots Monday, they’d be in better shape in the standings. The goal remains for these Lakers to make do with their current roster of young players and one-year contracts, win a round or two in the playoffs, and add another superstar this summer.

But a future-focused franchise shouldn’t lose sight of player development. One of the keys to building a sustainable winner is having high-impact players on cheap contracts. Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart don’t hit restricted free agency until 2021. Ingram doesn’t until 2020. The Warriors became the Warriors four years ago in part because Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were either on rookie contracts or team-friendly second deals, which allowed the front office to spend elsewhere—just like the Lakers were able to do this past summer by signing LeBron, and could do again next summer. But Curry and Thompson also played heavy minutes together as young players; the opportunity allowed them to keep getting better and better until they blossomed into stars.

The young Lakers face different circumstances with LeBron on the team, but they are still in a formative phase. Rondo and Lance Stephenson have no business taking minutes, touches, and shots away from the youth.

Walton was dealt a tough hand. He doesn’t need two pure point guards like Ball and Rondo with so many other ball handlers on the roster. But Walton is on the right track: He replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the starting lineup with Hart, a second-year guard who is a better shooter and a more consistent defender. Staggering Brandon Ingram more frequently with James should also be a priority. Ingram has shared the floor with James for 64 of his 82 minutes, but he has played at his best when he doesn’t, including during the preseason, because he’s had more opportunities with the ball in his hands. Ingram needs to log time with James, but his playmaking is an underrated quality that should be nurtured, not ignored.

Increasing Ball’s minutes and decreasing Rondo’s comes with risks; Rondo, now in his 13th season, has actually not performed poorly. But Ball has shown he can be a much better defender than Rondo, who has regressed from a lockdown defender to a player opposing offenses target. Despite Ball’s shooting struggles to start his career, he is a greater perimeter threat than Rondo, and he also looks to move the ball quickly. Lonzo’s style complements James in that he can do the little things to fill the gaps around him, while Rondo’s ball dominance could be better used on reserve units, which need more help in the shot-creation department.

Not all players are built to be role players—it’s often a struggle for an aging NBA superstar, or a college All-American whose game doesn’t translate quite as well to the pros. Some also need heavy minutes to develop a rhythm on offense that then fuels their defense. That could end up being the case for Ball if he remains inconsistent. But I’d like to see him receive more time on the court, alongside LeBron, so he can learn how to choose his spots and maximize a smaller dosage of touches.

The development route is also beneficial for the front office. The more their young players play, the greater their value becomes, the more options Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson will have. If their young players develop on their current trajectories, they’ll either become foundational pieces, or more appealing assets as part of a trade package for a star player that could someday become available. For now, the focus must be on finding a lineup and rotation configuration that optimizes long-term development with short-term gains. After all, the Lakers do need to win games now. Or else the King won’t be happy.

“You probably don’t want to be around when my patience runs out. I’m serious.” Those were LeBron’s words after the Lakers lost 124-120 to the Timberwolves on Monday. There’s a lot to be annoyed about now, as the Lakers sit tied for third-to-last in the West. The team is an eyesore defensively—and LeBron’s apathetic man-to-man defense is one reason for it. Nobody boxes out, and they’ve been abused on the boards. The half-court offense has sputtered at times. The team is getting to the basket, but not hearing many whistles.

The Lakers have an arduous schedule ahead with games against Dallas, Portland, Toronto, and Minnesota. If they keep losing games, it may only be a matter of time until James sends a message directed at Walton and the front office about changes that must happen. If he does, it should be to play the kids. They could end up helping more now anyway than the veterans can, and will help build a better future one way or another. All it could take is a chance, and a little bit more patience.