Free Agency

Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson could help LeBron James transition into the player he wants to be

Shortly after it was announced that LeBron James will be joining the Lakers on a multi-year deal, it was reported that Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson are also moving to Los Angeles for the 2018-19 NBA season.

As far as on-court fit goes, the additions of Rondo and Stephenson are peculiar because the recipe for success on LeBron-led teams has long been to surround the best basketball player in the world with as many 3-point shooters as possible to maximize spacing. Rondo has improved as a long range shooter in his career, but he's still not someone defences respect from distance. It's a similar case with Stephenson, who attempted 2.8 3-pointers per game last season - the most he's taken since he was a member of the Pacers team that lost to LeBron's Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals - only to make 29.0 percent of those opportunities.

According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, however, it's all a part of Magic Johnson's plan to differentiate this Lakers team from LeBron's teams of the past, the idea being Rondo and Stephenson can make up for their inconsistencies as shooters by taking some of the playmaking burden off of his shoulders.

The Cavs were a team of specialists - many of them shooters - who were placed around the league's ultimate Swiss Army knife. But at times, especially during the playoffs, it did have the feel that James was playing 1-on-5 and needing to play 48 minutes because he was the team's only true creator and playmaker.

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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.

Whether or not it ultimately works remains to be seen, but LeBron spending more time off-ball while still being the focal point of an offence should terrify the rest of the league.

It's not something the 14-time All-Star did much last season - LeBron had the fifth-highest usage rating in the NBA, much of which was by necessity with the Cavaliers lacking playmakers - even though his off-ball numbers were off the charts. According to NBA.com, LeBron ranked in the 80th percentile or better in scoring efficiency as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, on cuts and on post-ups. He's also coming off of one of the best seasons of his career as a shooter, having made 40.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and 36.0 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers.

Play Frequency PPP Percentile
Roll Man 2.8% 1.23 80.1
Spot-up 4.7% 1.08 74.1
Cut 5.5% 1.62 97.0
Post-up 9.2% 1.04 87.7

Those numbers should be sustainable in a larger off-ball role, too. Not only does LeBron have the size and athleticism to succeed in those situations, he's one of the smartest players to have ever played the game. It shows in how he shakes defenders loose on cuts just as much as it does when he's standing in place with the ball in his hands.

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Sure Not Now

Just watch how easily LeBron loses Wesley Matthews on this possession:

Now watch what LeBron does when he doesn't receive the ball on a similar cut against a better defensive team:

The only non-centers to outscore LeBron in the post last season were Giannis Antetokounmpo and Harrison Barnes. He's always had the touch inside to be a dominant scorer on the block, so he's become even tougher to stop now that he's added the same fadeaway to his game that helped Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant extend their careers.

LeBron was also one of the league leaders in isolation scoring last season, giving him the tools to attack every mismatch in the book. If a smaller defender switches onto him, he will take them to the post, where he can outmuscle them or shoot over them. If a bigger defender switches onto him, he will drag them out to the 3-point line and beat them off the dribble in space. His versatility in that regard will become a factor against teams that switch across the board on defence, namely the Warriors and Rockets.

Whereas LeBron has done a decent amount of his scoring as a cutter and in the post in the past, his potential in pick-and-rolls is still largely untapped. Rondo, Stephenson and Lonzo Ball will have to prove they can create decent shots for themselves and others as ball handlers to prevent teams from clogging the paint, and yet having them run pick-and-rolls with someone who can play above the rim and below the rim as well as LeBron can will simplify their options, especially if the Lakers can surround them with shooting at other positions.

Think of LeBron almost as a Draymond Green-like threat in pick-and-rolls, albeit one that can score and pass far better than the Warriors big man.

The transition will require LeBron to make some sacrifices, but ones he is reportedly prepared to make at this stage of his career. Windhorst and Shelburne note that he knows giving up some control and playing more inside - particularly with his back to the basket - will help him in the long-run when he starts to lose some of his athleticism, much like Jordan and Bryant did, both of whom LeBron has studied throughout his career.

If we don't see the full-fledged version of that LeBron next season, all the signs are pointing towards it at least being the start, with Rondo and Stephenson being a part of it.

All signings will not be official until the end of the NBA moratorium period on July 6. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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