The Lakers are still figuring out how to play with LeBron James, a force of nature whose presence changes the role of everyone else on the team. They survived the initial feeling-out process over the first two months of the season with a 17-10 record and a net rating of plus-2.3. It has been easier for some than others. The player most affected has been Brandon Ingram, who is making the awkward transition from cornerstone to complementary piece. Los Angeles wanted him to make a big leap next to an all-time great, but given the structure of their LeBron-centric offense, he may not even get back to the player he was last year.
Ingram, who will have his sprained ankle (suffered last week against the Spurs) reevaluated Saturday, looked like a rising star coming into the season. At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, the no. 2 pick in the 2016 draft is an absurdly proportioned wing who can extend his arms and shoot over the top of almost every perimeter player in the NBA. There aren’t many players his size with his well-rounded perimeter game. He averaged 16.1 points on 47.0 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game last season, and moonlighted at point guard when Lonzo Ball was injured. He did all this at 20, making him younger than many of this year’s rookies.
Ingram hasn’t been the same player with LeBron on his team. He’s averaging fewer points, rebounds, and assists, and his true shooting percentage has declined even though he’s in a smaller role. He doesn’t get the ball nearly as much. LeBron said he wanted to play off the ball when he signed with the Lakers, but that was never realistic. He’s still playing at an incredibly high level, and he’s too competitive to take a step back if his team can’t succeed without him dominating. LeBron is going to adjust his game to fit his teammates only so much. They have to adjust to him.
The problem for Ingram is that he doesn’t have a complementary game. He’s a reluctant outside shooter (32.4 percent from 3 on 1.7 attempts per game) who is at his best when he can attack the rim and make plays for his teammates. Defenses feel comfortable leaving him open on the perimeter, which makes it hard for him to be effective when he’s playing off the ball. Ingram is essentially in the same spot as Dwyane Wade when LeBron came to Miami in 2010. The difference is that Wade had already established himself as an all-time great, making it easier for him to transition into a new role. Ingram is still figuring out who he is in the NBA. He doesn’t even know what he would be transitioning from.
LeBron and Ingram are making each other worse instead of better. The two wings have a net rating of plus-0.5 in 494 minutes together this season, which has dragged down the effectiveness of the entire starting lineup. The five-man unit of LeBron, Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and JaVale McGee has a net rating of plus-0.2 in 234 minutes this season. Replace Ingram with Josh Hart and their net rating shoots up to plus-10.7 in 107 minutes. It’s not a coincidence that the Lakers have been playing their best basketball of the season over the last week, ever since Ingram went down with a sprained ankle in the opening minutes of their 121-113 win over the Spurs on December 5.
The pieces fit together better without him. Hart, who is shooting 39.0 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game this season, is one of their best 3-point shooters. Combine him with Kuzma (32 percent on 5.7 attempts per game) and Lonzo (31.8 percent on 4.1 attempts per game) and the Lakers have enough shooting to open up the floor for LeBron to run pick-and-rolls with McGee and Tyson Chandler, who has given them a boost since coming over from the Suns. Lonzo might not be a better shooter than Ingram, but he’s more willing to let it fly from deep, which forces his defender to honor his shot.
This version of the Lakers looks more like the Cavs teams that LeBron powered to four straight NBA Finals. Put a roll man and three shooters around LeBron and someone will always be open, and he’s such a smart player that he will always find them. The defense can’t afford to leave one defender on LeBron, but they can’t send help and start rotating, either. Hart, Lonzo, and Kuzma are all decisive players who shoot quickly or make the next pass, and they all can attack a closeout and make plays on the move.
Kuzma, not Ingram, might be their best option as the no. 2 behind LeBron. He’s been on a tear since Ingram went down, averaging 25.5 points on 51.9 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists over the last four games. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Kuzma has the ball skills and shoot-first mentality of a combo guard in the body of a combo forward. There is some Tobias Harris in his game. He can score from all over the floor and rack up points without holding the ball, two essential skills for a secondary option in a LeBron-centric offense.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton had been decreasing the time Ingram spent with LeBron even before the injury. He began staggering the minutes of his two best wings a few weeks ago so that Ingram could be a primary ball handler. The move also filled a hole in the rotation created by an injury to backup point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been out since mid-November with a fractured hand. Ingram has looked like a different player in 121 minutes without LeBron this season:
Ingram’s Production, With and Without LeBron
|Ingram||With LeBron||Without LeBron|
|Ingram||With LeBron||Without LeBron|
|True Shooting Percentage||49.2||60.7|
Ingram is playing better without LeBron for the same reason that LeBron is playing better without Ingram. He’s a downhill player who needs to operate in space with shooters around him. The strength of his game is getting to his favorite spots and scoring over the top of defenders. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Ingram is in the 23rd percentile of players leaguewide in catch-and-shoot situations and the 62nd percentile when shooting off the dribble. From there, he can leverage his scoring ability to find the open man if the defense sends help. He still needs to get stronger and become a more efficient scorer, but those are things that can come in time.
The question is whether that time will come in Los Angeles. While LeBron is saying all the right things about playing with younger players, he can extend his prime for only so much longer. He’s shooting well enough from 3 this season (37.1 percent on 5.9 attempts per game) to play off Ingram, but Ingram isn’t good enough to move him off the ball. There have been only a handful of players in the history of the NBA who are. Walton has to find spots in the rotation to play Ingram on the ball, and he needs the 21-year-old to shoot more 3s to keep him on the floor next to LeBron.
If the Lakers keep Ingram and LeBron together, Ingram will have to embrace his inner role player. LeBron has long since stopped playing defense, while Hart and Lonzo don’t have the size to match up with bigger wings. Kuzma has been better on defense in Year 2, but he still has plenty of question marks on that end of the floor. Ingram is painfully skinny, but his length and quickness allow him to defend players at all four perimeter positions. He’s also smart enough to affect the game without the ball. He’s in the 71st percentile of cutters leaguewide this season, with many of those plays coming off feeds from LeBron. No matter what he does, though, there will still be situations when Walton has to take him out to put more spacing around LeBron.
There’s a lot of sacrifice that comes with being on the same team as LeBron. It goes beyond the never-ending media circus. Ingram’s dilemma illustrates a point Kevin Durant made in an article by Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report last week:
If you’re a younger player like Kawhi, trying to pair him with LeBron James doesn’t really make sense. Kawhi enjoys having the ball in his hands, controlling the offense, dictating the tempo with his post-ups; it’s how he plays the game. A lot of young players are developing that skill. They don’t need another guy. LeBron is a player that needs to play with guys that already know how they play the game -- and shooters. Like, young players that are still developing, it’s always going to be hard because he demands the ball so much, he demands control of the offense and he creates for everybody.
To be sure, Ingram is nowhere near as good as Kawhi, and he may never get to that point. There are a lot of holes in his game beyond his inconsistent 3-point shot. He doesn’t have an elite first step, so it’s hard for him to create separation off the dribble, and he doesn’t have the core strength to prevent stronger players from pushing him off his spots. Nor has he proved that he can be a full-time point forward: He’s averaged 2.8 assists on 2.0 turnovers in his NBA career.
It’s too soon to say how good he will become. He’s a top-two pick who just turned 21 in September. He won’t reach his prime for another four or five years. The Lakers could let him grow into a bigger role next to LeBron and then give him the keys to the offense when LeBron eventually starts to slow down. However, that isn’t any more realistic than their original idea of playing LeBron off the ball. Signing LeBron means throwing patience out the window, and a team with Ingram as the best player may never be good enough to win a title, anyway.
Los Angeles can make a push this season. The Western Conference is wide open after Golden State, which is one untimely injury away from being vulnerable. LeBron has shown he can push them with less talent around him than he has now. Hart, Lonzo, and Kuzma are good fits. Ingram is the odd man out. Situation is everything in the NBA. Victor Oladipo went from an afterthought in Oklahoma City to an All-Star in Indiana. Ingram has shown enough flashes that a team could gamble on him as a featured player. It’s just not going to happen with the Lakers. He’s more valuable to them as a trade chip than a player. He would be the centerpiece of any offer they make for Anthony Davis, but he may not be long for Los Angeles, either way. Trading Ingram could be the right move for everyone. We won’t know how good he can be until he gets a team of his own.