LeBron James is entering a new stage of his career. He’s still one of the best players in the NBA, but he’s no longer head and shoulders above everyone else. He may not even be the best player in his own city. Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, outplayed him on opening night in a 112-102 Clippers win over the Lakers that cemented LeBron as the underdog in the battle for Los Angeles. He turns 35 in December and leads the league in career minutes; Kawhi is a 28-year-old on a deeper and more versatile team, one that will allow him to coast through the regular season.
LeBron doesn’t have that luxury. The Lakers didn’t get much from their supporting cast on Tuesday. Danny Green was the team’s only player outside of LeBron and Anthony Davis in double digits, and he’s a spot-up shooter who can’t create offense on his own. The Lakers were missing Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo (both are expected to return from injury in the coming weeks), but even once those two rejoin the fold it’s unclear how all the Lakers’ pieces will fit. Kuzma and Rondo are inconsistent defenders who like to play with the ball in their hands.
Los Angeles needs LeBron to pick up the slack with an MVP-caliber season, but he’s not the same player he was in his prime. Peak LeBron was one of the most unstoppable forces in NBA history. He could put his head down at the 3-point line and power through multiple defenders on his way to the rim. LeBron can still turn back time in spurts, but there were also times against the Clippers when he punched the turbo button and nothing happened. On this drive against Montrezl Harrell, James tries to jump over the younger and more athletic big man and gets the ball sent back in his face:
The most telling moment came on a play when Ivica Zubac, a 7-foot-1, 240-pound traditional center, switched on to him. LeBron, recognizing the mismatch, brought the ball out past the 3-point line to isolate against Zubac in space. But he couldn’t create enough separation on his drive to get a clean look and wound up settling for a contested runner:
The easiest way for an older player to make up for his game slowing down is to shoot more from the perimeter. LeBron took a career-high 5.9 3s per game last season and shot five on Tuesday. But while he has improved as a shooter during his career, he’s not at the point where it can be the foundation of his game. He may never get there. LeBron has shot above 38 percent from 3 just once in 16 seasons in the NBA, and has never shot above 78 percent from the free throw line.
LeBron has always been at his best when he uses his size (6-foot-8 and 250 pounds) to punish smaller defenders inside. It was the same story on Tuesday: He shot 4-for-6 within 3 feet of the rim and 3-for-13 from everywhere else on the floor. The key for him this season will be finding a way to get inside without using too much energy.
The answer is right in front of him. The Lakers averaged 1.5 points per possession against the Clippers, per Synergy Sports, in the six possessions when LeBron either shot or passed out of the post. It shouldn’t matter if he’s not playing above the rim. He’s so big and strong that he can be the best below-the-rim player in the league. Look how easy it is for him to score on Patrick Beverley, an elite perimeter defender, on the block:
The Clippers sent help the next time down the floor, creating a wide-open 3 for Green:
They eventually put Kawhi on LeBron, but even the two-time Defensive Player of the Year didn’t have an answer when LeBron posted him up. In this sequence, LeBron gets the ball 15 feet from the basket and backs down Kawhi before shooting a fadeaway:
This is old-man YMCA basketball at its finest. LeBron walks Kawhi to a spot on the floor and there is nothing the younger star can do to stop him. And playing that way doesn’t take nearly as much energy as facing up at the 3-point line and trying to beat the defender off the dribble.
LeBron has never wanted to spend much time wrestling in the post, but he no longer has the luxury of playing in his preferred style. He has to take advantage of the strengths he has left in comparison with his peers, and LeBron may have to go through Kawhi and Giannis Antetokounmpo to win an NBA championship. He can’t play the same game as them and expect to win, especially given the weaknesses of the roster around him.
One of the things that separates the best players in any sport is their ability to adapt their game as they get older. Roger Federer, at 38, can’t win major championships in the same way that he did at 28. But there are still times when he can dig deep into his bag of tricks and outfox younger and more athletic players. LeBron is now the lion in winter. He has to change how he plays, and he has the basketball IQ to pull it off.
None of these changes can happen overnight. The Lakers aren’t set up to use James in the post. With Rondo out, LeBron spent a lot of his time against the Clippers bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense. The Lakers’ other guards couldn’t do the job: Avery Bradley is an undersized combo guard while Quinn Cook, Danny Green, and Troy Daniels are shooting specialists. Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel should try Alex Caruso, a 25-year-old in his third season who showed flashes when given the chance to play at the end of last season, at the point.
Rondo probably isn’t the long-term answer. He’s never been a good shooter, which limits the floor spacing around LeBron and Davis, and he’s been getting by on his reputation as a defender for a long time. There’s a reason that he has played for six teams in five seasons.
The Lakers need another playmaker who can take some pressure off of LeBron while still being able to space the floor and defend when the ball isn’t in his hands. That hypothetical player will be tough to find. But while the team doesn’t have many assets to trade after emptying the cupboard for Davis, it will be one of the most attractive destinations on the buyout market. The Lakers have been linked to Andre Iguodala, who is currently trying to force his way out of Memphis. He wouldn’t solve their spacing issues, but he’s a savvy passer who would give them a longer and more versatile defender in place of Rondo.
They have even bigger issues up front. The Lakers mostly used traditional lineups against the Clippers, with LeBron at the 3, Davis at the 4, and either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, who combined to play 36 minutes, at the 5. However, since neither McGee nor Howard can space the floor, the Clippers packed the paint with extra defenders every time that LeBron or AD attacked the rim. The Lakers miss the shooting ability of DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his ACL over the summer. He was the only stretch big man on their roster.
Losing Cousins creates a domino effect in their lineup. The only way to space the floor without him is to go smaller, which forces LeBron to work more on defense. One of the reasons that McGee and Howard played so much against the Clippers is that their presence on the floor allowed LeBron to hide on nonthreatening offensive players. He spent 41.8 percent of his time on Tuesday on either Beverley or Maurice Harkless, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Neither took a shot with LeBron as their primary defender.
He won’t get to take as many plays off if the Lakers downsize to a LeBron-AD frontcourt. The assumption is that LeBron would be the 4 and AD would be the 5 in that scenario, but that may not be the best way to use them. The days of LeBron being a lockdown perimeter defender have come and gone. He doesn’t have the speed or energy to chase smaller players around the 3-point line for 40 minutes. Kawhi had his way with LeBron in the few possessions on Tuesday when LeBron was guarding him. This is too easy:
Davis is a better option on supersize wings like Kawhi. At 6-foot-10 and 253 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, he has a unique combination of length and quickness that allows him to swallow up even the biggest perimeter players on defense. Look at what he does to Kawhi on this drive:
The problem with putting Davis on the perimeter and playing a small-ball lineup is that would leave LeBron as the only interior defender. He has never wanted to defend 4s, much less 5s, but there’s no reason that he couldn’t. LeBron towers over Draymond Green, who won a Defensive Player of the Year Award by closing games as a small-ball 5. LeBron is one of the strongest players in the NBA, and he’s so powerfully built that it would be almost impossible for even 7-footers to push him off his spot in the post. It’s a lot to ask. But that’s the type of sacrifice that LeBron will have to make to fight his way back to the top.
It’s not something the Lakers need to try much in the regular season. The Warriors always carried a bunch of traditional centers on their roster to keep Draymond fresh for the playoffs. JaVale and Dwight can buy time inside over the next six months, while LeBron and AD won’t need ideal spacing to keep Los Angeles afloat in the playoff hunt.
But getting by will not be enough in the playoffs. The Lakers need to maximize their two superstars to win an NBA championship. Their best chance is to invert their roles. Davis should be their best wing, and LeBron should be their best big man.