James arrived in Orlando last week seeking his fourth title with his third franchise, hoping to cut into Michael Jordan’s 6-3 advantage in rings. If the Lakers are the last team standing in Florida after three months, their triumph would set off another round of “GOAT” debates. Who else besides James could pay off a franchise overhaul involving a new president, a new coach and a new superstar sidekick by snapping a six-year playoff drought and reaching the promised land during a global pandemic?
That task looks more difficult by the day. The Lakers announced Sunday that Rajon Rondo will have surgery and miss at least six weeks after breaking his right thumb during practice, sidelining the veteran point guard for the eight remaining regular season games and the start of the playoffs. The injury dealt a second blow to a backcourt that was already down Avery Bradley, who elected to stay home due to coronavirus concerns.
Rondo and Bradley are years removed from their statistical primes, but they each possess skills that will be hard for their potential replacements to replicate. Coach Frank Vogel turned to Rondo as a ballhandler and initiator of the offense when James is on the bench; Bradley claimed a starting spot with his energetic on-ball defense. Vogel’s remaining backcourt options — Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook and new signees Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith — will be asked to fill in on a by-committee basis.
In a best-case scenario, James will first empower all-star forward Anthony Davis to take on greater scoring and playmaking responsibilities. From there, the Lakers will hope Caruso’s positive two-way impact scales in an expanded role, Waiters and Cook pick up some of the ballhandling responsibility and James can generate even more drive-and-kick three-pointers for his less dynamic wings. That’s a workable formula but one that relies on excellent team health going forward. The Lakers can’t afford to lose another rotation player given that the Los Angeles Clippers, their top competition in the West, boast the NBA’s top-scoring bench.
Lakers fans searching for optimism will look first to James, who has a long history of handling health adversity in the playoffs. In 2012 with the Miami Heat, he won his first title despite Chris Bosh’s extended absence. In 2015, he carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals despite injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. James has many basketball virtues, but near the top of the list is his rare ability to modulate his style and approach to maximize the pieces around him.
James has developed a nice two-man interplay with Caruso, and his ability to draw defensive attention will be central to generating additional offense from Caldwell-Pope, Cook and Smith. Whether the ball-dominant, inefficient Waiters can be more useful than he was during his short and ill-fated stint alongside James in Cleveland remains to be seen. The key relationship is Davis; James will need him to be a big-man version of fearless operators such as Dwyane Wade and Irving.
It’s worth noting that the 35-year-old James has benefited from four months of rest. Usually, he enters the playoffs after playing for six straight months as one of the league leaders in minutes played. This year, he arrived in Florida fresh, focused and feeling comfortable with the NBA’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
“I believe in [Commissioner] Adam Silver,” James told reporters Saturday during his first media availability since the NBA’s March 11 shutdown. “I believe in our franchise, that we are doing everything we can to stay safe. I have no concerns. We’ll cross that bridge if it happens. I’m here 100 percent, in great health. I’m looking forward to getting back on the floor.”
Therein lies the silver lining for the Lakers, whose title hopes were never going to ride on Rondo or any of their individual role players. The Lakers need James — his exuberance, leadership, physicality, intelligence and experience — more than ever, and he sounds ready to go.
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