LeBron James takes control of the Lakers

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

LEBRON JAMES HAS LOOKED more like the LeBron James of old over the past few weeks. Well, other than Tuesday night.

His scoring is way up and his impact on Los Angeles Lakers games has surged, too. Not coincidentally, they've been winning more. They've won seven of 10 even after their 32-point loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Is it because he has become more comfortable in his new surroundings? Sure, that probably is playing some role.

Is it because his teammates are learning how to play alongside him and vice versa? No doubt.

But that doesn't seem to be the real basis of it. What seems to have gotten James back into the groove is that he's back in his comfort zone playing lots of point guard again. It hasn't been framed this way but that's what he has been doing increasingly as the season has aged, and especially after Rajon Rondo went down because of a broken hand.

Since Rondo had to leave a game in Portland and subsequently have surgery, James is handling the ball almost a minute more per game than before, according to Second Spectrum's tracking data. This is a significant spike because the Lakers have so many possessions where they push the ball in transition that ballhandling stats can be a little skewed. During this span James has increased his scoring average five points a game.

In fact, his stats have improved across the board, especially his shooting, which has soared since Rondo went down. The Lakers are benefiting. Even "official starting point guard" Lonzo Ballis filling the lanes on fast breaks and coming out of his shell at James' urging.

Advance scouts who have been tracking the Lakers report that Ball frequently becomes an off guard when James is in the game with him. It's enough to wonder if this arrangement is truly their destiny of playing together in the future, especially if Ball is able to improve his outside shooting and show a willingness to drive the ball, as he has in recent games. Ball suffered a sprained ankle Tuesday, which may slow him down temporarily and add even more ballhandling duty for James in the near term.

This is probably because having the ball and controlling the offense is the way James has been conditioned to play for most of the past 15 seasons. He has won MVPs and titles operating as the de facto point guard. That's who he is, even if it has a tendency to mentally and physically exhaust him at times.

James grumbled to Cavs management about the need to have more playmakers on the roster to ease this burden in recent years. It wasn't that the Cavs coaches and front office ignored him -- it was just that all their data showed they were better when James was the primary playmaker. They were sorry/not sorry about not taking the ball from him.

When James came to the Lakers, he relished the idea of being able to play off the ball more, to use his post-up skills and to generally expend less energy. That was the idea behind signing Rondo, and Lance Stephenson ... it would ease the need for James to do as much creating.

But as those who have been around James over the years will tell you, there is the July version of James when he's sitting on a couch with a glass of wine and talking basketball philosophy. And there's the midseason version of James who wants to win above all else and trusts himself above all others to make it happen. As is typical, the latter has been showing itself as the games pile up.

When Rondo has been active and he and Ball have split point guard duties, some of that has happened. When playing alongside Rondo, James had been averaging less time of possession in games than players such asZach LaVine and Jamal Murray. When Rondo has been out, James' ballhandling time is up there with John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. Basically, where he has been for years.

And those post-ups? James is averaging half as many post-ups per game as he did with the Cavs. He can't post because most of the time the Lakers are either fast breaking or relying on James to be the playmaker on offense.

The scouts also have noticed that when James is running the point, he rarely looks toward the bench to receive playcalls from coach Luke Walton. Even when he has seen them, the scouts say, he ignores them and runs the play he prefers. Walton has adjusted, and now when James is running the show, Walton will typically just let him call the game. This probably shouldn't be considered a slight -- it's just James being James.

In fact, Walton has done a good job of limiting James' minutes and using the depth he has in the backcourt to attempt to ease the burden so James can be a bit fresher. He's averaging a career-low 35 minutes.

Even if it took a bit for Walton to figure out exactly how James was comfortable in the rotation. There was a game in Minnesota early in the season when Walton removed James just five minutes into the game in an effort to set the rotation so James could finish each quarter. James was, to put it mildly, mystified.

Bottom line, things are trending more positively for the Lakers. James getting back into his comfort zone, whether it was in the original game plan or not, is helping.

LEAGUE EXECUTIVES ARE WATCHINGDERRICK ROSEwith a mix of wonder and skepticism as he continues to have his best season since 2011-12, when he was last an All-Star and before his first knee injury.

After watching Rose's game erode and several times looking as if he were on the verge of being out of the league, his sudden development into a modern-style point guard has been a stunner.

Rose is shooting 46 percent this season on 3-pointers and a whopping 54 percent over the past nine games. This is a guy who shot just 27 percent on 3-pointers over the previous four years and was so bad at them he basically stopped trying. Right now, he has the highest true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage in his career. Not to mention he looks explosive on the floor.

It's rare but not impossible for a player to have a sudden shooting awakening. Some executives have wondered if Rose is starting a transformation a decade into his career like Jason Kidd, who turned himself from a poor 3-point shooter into a good one in his 30s. Others say they'll wait to see him do it for an extended period.

That's fair. So is pointing out Rose has his best PER and highest plus/minus since suffering his knee injuries.

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau has been doubling down on this Rose surge. He has experimented with closing games with Rose and starting point guard Jeff Teague playing together.

Rose is a confounding player, to say the least, and his off-court issues make him even more challenging. He's also not the defensive player he used to be. But he without question has turned into one of the more fascinating stories in the league at the moment.

So, too, by the way, have the Wolves. Since trading Jimmy Butler, they are 5-2 and have had the third-best defense in the league.

THE CAVS MIGHT BE GOING BACK to their version of "the process" in the coming months. When James first left in 2010, owner Dan Gilbert kept spending on his roster but in a different way. He was willing to take on salary in exchange for draft picks as the Cavs loaded up their coffers with assets in addition to their own lottery picks. When James came back, they were able to convert those assets into major trades.

In conversations the Cavs have had around the league, they've begun to express that they'll be willing to take on long-term salary as the trade deadline approaches, league sources said. The Cavs have a couple of veterans they are going to be willing to trade.

The most interest is expected to be in Kyle Korver, who is shooting 46 percent on 3-pointers, but they also have the attractive contract of George Hill, who is making $19 million this season and has just $1 million guaranteed for next season. Hill, who is out because of a shoulder injury, was off to a good start, averaging 12.6 points and shooting 48 percent on 3-pointers in 10 games.

There's a lot of salary-cap space out there this summer, and other teams' books are in better shape now than they were just a year or two ago. It's not clear what the market will be to move money, especially if it includes a desire for picks in the 2019 draft. That said, the Cavs are willing to look out a few years, and a willingness to be a dumping ground for a contract could become relevant both in February at the trade deadline and in June around the draft.

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