LeBron James will start at point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers next season, per Yahoo Sports, a head-scratching announcement for a player who has often served as the de facto floor general for his team since entering the league in 2003. In fact, since 2013-14, his last year in Miami and the first year tracking data is available, James has ranked no worse than 25th in the league for touches per game. In four of those six seasons, he ranked in the top 10.
It’s also not the first time he’s been slotted in at point guard. In 2017, James recorded a triple-double as Cleveland’s point guard and dropped 34 points with 13 assists in a different game against the Chicago Bulls in the same role, telling reporters “ever since I was a kid I’ve always learned every position on the floor.” He also ran plays for the Lakers last season after Rajon Rondo suffered a broken hand.
The bigger question is what the rotations will look like if James is indeed the team’s true starting point guard this season.
The most obvious benefit will be splitting up James and Rondo, a point guard who was brought back on a two-year deal this offseason. When those two shared the court for the Lakers last season, the team was outscored by almost four points per 100 possessions. When James played while Rondo looked on from the bench, the team outscored opponents by more than five points per 100 possessions. The team’s net rating with Rondo on the court and James on the bench dropped to a woeful minus-12.
Having James as the point guard almost necessitates starting Danny Green (signed to a two-year, $30 million deal on Friday from the reigning champion Toronto Raptors) at shooting guard so he can defend the opposing team’s point guard. Green is a versatile defender who had success manning up Stephen Curry and Chris Paul last season, as well as some of the other top players in the league. Offensively, he is an excellent spot-up shooter (1.3 points per possession in 2018-19, 98th percentile) with tremendous accuracy on shots from behind the three-point line (1.4 points per attempt, 98th percentile).
Anthony Davis, acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and draft picks, slides in at his preferred position of power forward and is the ideal complement to James’s playing style. Davis doesn’t need the ball in his hands often (just 8 percent of his possessions last season were in isolation) and is difficult near the basket (1.4 points per possession last season, 96th percentile) and as the roll man during the pick-and-roll. He can also pop out to the perimeter for a three-point shot (33 percent in 2018-19).
Kyle Kuzma (small forward) and DeMarcus Cousins (center) likely round out the starting rotation. If the idea is to surround James with perimeter shooters, this might not work out as intended.
Kuzma only made 30 percent of his three-point shots last season and was above average as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll (65th percentile for points per possession). But he was in the 50th percentile or worse in transition, as a spot-up shooter, coming off screens, cutting to the basket and posting up opponents. And then there’s the transition from power forward to small forward. According to 82games.com, Kuzma’s player efficiency rating slipped from 18.5 to 16.2 when he slid down a position while his opponent’s improved from 13.8 to 16.2 whether Kuzma was defending another power forward or small forward.
Cousins was worse than Kuzma from long range (27 percent in 30 games with the Golden State Warriors) in addition to being a below-average spot-up shooter (16th percentile) and even worse performer as the roll man (12th percentile), although he did produce down low in the post (54th percentile) and in transition (86th percentile) for the Warriors.
Both Cousins and Davis like to work in the post, so it remains to be seen if Cousins will be asked to be more of a perimeter shooter for the upcoming season. It is worth noting the two coexisted in New Orleans during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, but that was largely due to Davis getting half of the post-up possessions in those years, per data from Synergy Sports. That pushed Cousins’s overall effective field goal percentage down from 54 to 52 percent with Davis on the court with him. Cousins’s usage also dropped from 39 to 29 percent.
Then there is the concern of James’s workload. Playing point guard, which entails bringing the ball up every possession in addition to running the offense, is taxing on any player, let alone one who will be 35 years old in December. One way to mitigate his wear and tear is to slow down the offense to a pace that’s more comfortable for him. With James as the floor general, his teams typically ran 91 to 92 plays a game. That increased to 97 and 99 possessions per game during his last two years in Cleveland, respectively, before spiking to 104 possessions per game (fifth-fastest in the NBA) last year with the Lakers.
Still, labeling James as the team’s point guard does have one, concrete advantage: It almost ensures the offense will revolve around him, a departure from Luke Walton’s scheme a year ago where any of the other four ballhandlers on the court could push the tempo if they chose. Under new Coach Frank Vogel it appears to be all about giving James the keys to the car.
“It’s not this massive innovative approach where we roll out something no one has ever seen before,” Vogel told The Athletic. “We’re not going to recreate the wheel, but there are small things we can tweak, just like every player on the team, to put him in the best position to utilize his skill set."