With the NBA preseason a thing of the past and the regular season still in its infancy, we need to reflect on the importance of chemistry and identity, two things the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to build now that LeBron James is in town and expectations are sky high.
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It’s been said that the NBA is a superstar-driven league, and to a degree, that’s true. The team with the most talent tends to win, which is why the Golden State Warriors, with their super team of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and now DeMarcus Cousins, are the heavy favorite to hoist another NBA championship in June.
However, talent isn’t everything. There has to be a cohesive plan that the organization, from the front office executives to the players on the floor, carry out with precision and determination. Throwing together talented players and just hoping something clicks can be a recipe for disaster.
The 2005-06 New York Knicks still foul the air as a cautionary tale of talent not being enough. They boasted a roster with names like Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jamal Crawford, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Jerome James (after infamously cashing in on one good playoff series) and Quentin Richardson.
They also had promising young players in David Lee, Channing Frye, Trevor Ariza and Matt Barnes. Penny Hardaway even made an appearance.
These were all, to varying degrees, NBA players with real talent. Despite this, they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference, plummeting to earth in a fireball of entitlement and in-fighting.
Ignoring identity and chemistry in a blind quest for talent can be a recipe for disaster.
This is part of the reason why the Lakers, since the arrival of Magic Johnson and his front office-mandated playing style, have been a success. Johnson gave the team an identity as one that would, in some ways, mimic his Showtime teams by playing stingy defense and then running in transition as often as possible.
Under Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak there was no real team identity, no goal beyond the quest for a star player, with the idea being that the Lakers could stay flexible and change their identity based on whoever eventually took their money.
Not surprisingly, that lack of direction pushed stars away, but Johnson rectified that quickly and decisively with a mandate to run. Last season’s Lakers scored a higher percentage of their points in transition than any team in the NBA, which was partly made possible by their much-improved defense.
These two aspects combined allowed them to be better than the sum of their parts. After all, the Lakers, who were a relatively inefficient transition team, still averaged more points per possession on the run than any half-court offense in the league could.
The Lakers’ half-court offense was nothing to write home about, but as Johnson understood, the fast break, even when poorly run, can level the playing field.
The challenge, now that James and his spotlight have arrived in Los Angeles, is to continue along that path. After all, James hasn’t been known for playing up-tempo basketball. Last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers finished 12th in pace and that was ludicrous speed compared to James’ previous seasons with the Cavs and Miami Heat.
To his credit, James has spoken positively about the Lakers run-and-fun style. He throws some of the best hit-ahead passes in the league, and flanked by fellow long ball specialists like Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers could feast on easy scoring opportunities.
When Ball made his preseason debut against the Warriors, the Lakers were even able to run off made baskets, with one memorable play seeing the ball zipped up the floor with Ball and Brandon Ingram moving it ahead quickly to James, who found JaVale McGee for an alley-oop.
It took four seconds in total; the ball was in the basket before the bewildered Warriors knew what happened. This type of play isn’t available often but the Lakers will need to take advantage of all the easy points that they can get.
However, there are real questions about whether this year’s team, despite their improved talent, can successfully implement that fast-breaking style of play. Last season’s Lakers made major strides defensively and on the glass, two areas that have been a struggle for the new roster.
If they can’t get stops or pull down rebounds, then the focal point of the offense, which is the transition game, may be dead in the water.
Preseason numbers can be deceptive, and the finale against the Warriors, which saw non-rotation players on both sides play big minutes and thus muddy the statistical water, but there is still some reason to be concerned.
The Lakers finished second-to-last among NBA teams in rebounds per 100 possessions, giving a bit of credibility to the fears that going small would hurt them on the glass. Should things go south, what will the reaction be from the cadre of veterans that Johnson and Rob Pelinka added to one-year deals?
Knowing their next contract is on the line, will Rondo, Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee all stick to the script and continue to share the wealth? Passing is contagious but so is selfish play, particularly when dollars are at stake.
All that being said, enough of the doom and gloom. Optimism is (and should be) in the air. The challenges are real but so is the determination to overcome them, and if Lakers head coach Luke Walton can keep the team playing together, they should be able to find ways to win.
If things really click James, Rondo, and Ball will be flinging passes everywhere while Los Angeles races to the bucket for another highlight-reel finish. That’s the kind of basketball that’s easy to buy into.
We know that the Lakers want to get stops and then run. It’s the DNA that Johnson, the engine of the fabled Showtime teams, has instilled into this new generation. We just don’t know if the 2018-19 team can do those things just yet, but it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.