Fans knew the Los Angeles Lakers would be good during the 2019-20 NBA season, but their blazing-hot start (14-2) has gone beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected.
While it’s fair to say their opponents haven’t been the toughest (ESPN has them ranked 19th in strength of schedule so far), they have still stepped up and shown the mental fortitude to win close games that almost certainly would have been losses in past seasons.
While the Anthony Davis trade was the catalyst that pushed the team into the league’s upper echelon, the inspired play of LeBron James has been the engine powering their success this season. At 34 years old, James has been on a mission to prove that he hasn’t vacated his throne atop the league just yet and has posted eye-popping averages of 25.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and a league-leading 10.8 assists per game.
James’ dominance has been so complete that it may present a new challenge: not relying on him too much.
James has been like Dumbo’s feather, Thor’s hammer, or Michael Scott’s management: so good they become a crutch to lean upon then when they are gone, it’s a difficult transition.
Shot clock winding down? No problem, James is in the 87th percentile per Synergy in scoring with less than four seconds left. Offense not getting open looks? No problem, he can read the defense as well as anyone, get into the paint at will, and is more than willing to give out free Spalding tattoos to anyone not expecting a pass to be zipped their way.
Even on defense, James has been explosive, energetic, and made one smart play after another. No Laker has any excuse to slack on the defensive end when James — the league’s biggest star — is routinely taking charges in the paint and making the extra effort to close out on shooters. It’s been absolutely incredible.
However, in the midst of James proving doubters wrong, the team’s lack of success whenever he heads to the bench is a gathering storm. For the season, the Lakers are a -6.9 in Net Rating whenever he is on the bench and he’s the only Laker who has a negative off-court rating. In other words, the Lakers thus far have managed to outperform their opponents as long as it’s anyone other than James sitting on their bench.
The drop largely stems from the team’s struggles to generate offense without him as their Offensive Rating of 114 for the season plummets all the way to 94.2 when James is sidelined.
The hope was the return of Rajon Rondo would give the Lakers another floor general to keep things humming but so far, that hasn’t been the case.
In fact, the problem has actually gotten worse as the Lakers are a frightening -22.7 in Net Rating over the last five games without James. This coincides with some recent slippage on the defensive end of the floor with Avery Bradley and Alex Caruso ailing as the Lakers were able to do a better job of preventing their opponent from scoring when their offense would sputter without James.
In other words, for most of the season, the Lakers have been counting on their defense to keep things close when James rests, knowing that he would provide the firepower to pull away when he got back out on the floor.
Of course, their reliance on James is far from a surprise. Teams should be expected to get worse when one of their best players isn’t on the court. The Houston Rockets are a -7.8 when James Harden is out, the Milwaukee Bucks are just barely in the positive without Giannis Antetokounmpo at .8 but are at a plus-13 with him.
The challenge for the Lakers will be to find a way to still be in the positive when James is out. Many of their players like Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook, and others are not natural shot creators but instead thrive when they can knock down shots after someone else has drawn the defense. Getting those looks without James to generate them has been a struggle — even if Davis is on the floor.
While there is no magic solution to the problem short of James never resting (which won’t happen, since fans are somewhat certain he’s human), the coaching staff will need to be creative and find ways to make things work. There are still dangerous pieces there with Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Rondo, and others, but it’s going to take some creativity to get them to fly without their magic feather.
It won’t be easy but for now, the non-James minutes are the team’s biggest weakness without question. If they can find a way to improve in that area — even just to break even in Net Rating — it’s going to turn the Lakers into an absolute nightmare for opposing teams to deal with.