Without a doubt, signing LeBron James to a four-year, $153M contract was the Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest offseason move. President of Basketball Operations, Magic Johnson, General Manager, Rob Pelinka, and the entire front office had prepared for this moment.
They cleared as much cap space as possible with the intention of signing two max-contract free agents. James, LA-native Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins headlined this offseason’s free agent class; Kawhi Leonard joined that list as soon as the Spurs started listening to trade offers for him.
Building a winning culture
But here we are, over a week after free agency officially started on July 1st, and the Lakers were only able to acquire one max-contract level superstar. George decided to stay in OKC long-term; Cousins pulled one of the most surprising moves of the summer by signing with the Golden State Warriors; Leonard has become nearly impossible to acquire with the Spurs requesting way too much in exchange for him and with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s intentions still unclear.
Instead, the Lakers refocused and decided to use the rest of their cap space to sign other free agents, including Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Personally, I have seen a lot of hostility towards Magic and the Lakers for said moves. But to me they represent brilliance and a great opportunity to rebuild the winning culture in LA. Here is a closer look at what the Lakers have accomplished one week into free agency.
A report by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne revealed the Lakers’ plans. “What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself,” the report says. “Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile, as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches.” Things make a ton of sense now, right?
Rondo checks the “tough-minded playmaker” box right away and is also a versatile defender, even at 6-foot-1 and 32 years old. He was fifth in assist percentage (42.2) last season per Basketball Reference, behind only Russell Westbrook, J.J. Barea, James Harden, and LeBron.
As he showed during the Playoffs, he is still a very capable contributor; his 12.2 assists per game in nine Playoff appearances this year were a career high. He is still one of the elite passers in the NBA and effortlessly creates easy scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Exactly what the Lakers need
Lance Stephenson’s reputation takes a hit every time a new video of him doing something stupid in-game goes up on social media. From blowing on LeBron’s ear to strumming his invisible guitar, we have seen it all from this man. But more often than not, he is a positive for his team. Of course he is not close to being as good of a player as he was during his first run with the Pacers, but he is still a solid bench player. He is a decent three-point shooter and slasher. His defense is questionable, but he will have no other option but to follow the Lakers’ defensive schemes closely. And even though he is not a great defender, he can sure annoy any opponent with ease. I believe that his playmaking, however, is an underrated aspect of his game. Stephenson is no Rondo, but he is capable of finding open teammates and making the right winning play; this is exactly what the Lakers need.
Caldwell-Pope is not really a playmaker, but he is a scorer with improved efficiency and a solid defender. He averaged career-highs in field goal percentage (42.6) and three-point percentage (38.3). His improved long-range accuracy was a dangerous weapon the Lakers had this past season, as more than half of Caldwell-Pope’s total shots were from three-point range, and 87.4% of them were assisted by a teammate. Even though only 19.7% of his shots came from the restricted area, he made them on a career-best 66.2% accuracy mark. His offensive services will greatly help James. His defense also made an impact in LA last season; he has the ability to lock down most guards in the league. Caldwell-Pope reads passing lanes and likes to gamble for steals if he sees an opening. His defensive contributions are his strongest selling point to Lakers management.
And finally, we have JaVale McGee. The Golden State Warriors revitalized his career, as he often made more appearances in Shaqtin´A Fool highlights than in SportsCenter highlight reels. Two years of experience with the best franchise in the current-day NBA and playing alongside very intelligent basketball minds in Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green have definitely helped McGee increase his Basketball IQ; and even though he is not a playmaker at all, he knows what to do on offense. He is also the league’s best bench rim protector. McGee led the league in blocks per 36 minutes (3.3) and was one of two players – the other is Lucas Nogueira – to average more than 0.8 blocks per game in less than 10 minutes of action this past season.
Surrounding LeBron with playmakers
Think about what Houston did after acquiring Chris Paul last year. Daryl Morey signed every possible 3-and-D guy out there and it worked because he surrounded his two star players with suitable pieces according to the team’s game plan. The Lakers already had three key pieces in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, who are all (or have potential to be) solid playmakers and versatile defenders. It only makes sense to bring in more players with said capacities. Surrounding LeBron with playmakers and defenders will ease the deadly burden he carried last year in Cleveland. James will not have a necessity to be the offensive initiator on every trip, thus giving him enough air to score in bunches and play good defense as he becomes older every day.
And as a source close to LeBron said, “[James] doesn’t have pressure to prove anything. He wants some changes, and he can afford to let the process breathe.” All of the newcomers have one-year deals and become free agents next offseason. If this strategy works, the Lakers can simply re-sign them and keep winning; and if it does not, the team will still have a bunch of cap space to sign a max-level free agent talent and change the plan right away. Do things make sense now?
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA