Luke Walton may not have had a chance to meet or speak personally with LeBron James during the free agency process but there’s little doubt he was a big part of the vision Magic Johnson spun to sell the King on coming to L.A.
Forget the crazy rant this week by Stephen A. Smith proposing Jeanie Buss fire Luke Walton and hire Phil Jackson or the wild rumors from last March of Rich Paul suggesting Jeanie replace Luke with LeBron favorite David Fizdale. Luke’s not going anywhere. His playmaking-driven pace-and-space offense and swarming switch-everything team defense were what attracted LeBron and will give him the opportunity to evolve his game and extend his career.
Luke Walton’s job as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers is about as secure as any NBA head coaching gig can be. He’s a favorite of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and is universally viewed as one the league’s brightest young coaches.
A protégé and former top assistant for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, Luke’s instincts and inexperience will be tested as he faces the biggest challenge in his young coaching career, figuring how to make Lonzo and LeBron work.
Just one short year ago, Lonzo Ball was drafted #2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers and proclaimed by none other than Magic Johnson to be the new face of the franchise and a future Hall of Fame player destined to have his jersey hanging from the rafters in Staples Center alongside the other Lakers’ greats. That all changed last week when free agent superstar LeBron James agreed to join the Lakers and what was Lonzo’s team suddenly became LeBron’s team.
News of the signing was immediately met with premature proclamations by the pundits that Lonzo would have to be traded since he and LeBron both needed the ball and there was no way LeBron was going to play off the ball. But the truth is Lonzo’s usage rate is the lowest among starting point guards and his contagious style of play, selfless playmaking vision, and transcendent basketball IQ are exactly what LeBron James now wants in a teammate.
Bottom line, Lonzo Ball is the perfect point guard to play with LeBron James as his game evolves and he makes the necessary adjustments as he gets older to maintain his proficiency and extend his career. LeBron has openly praised Lonzo’s game and vision and said he’s looking forward to playing with him. As for Lonzo, it was LeBron James and not Kobe Bryant whose fathead graced the wall above his bed and whom he idolized growing up in Chino Hills.
In a three-hour one-on-one meeting the eve of free agency, Magic Johnson presented his vision to LeBron James that the way to beat the Warriors is not with shooters but with smart, tough, versatile playmakers and defenders. Magic laid out a detailed plan to build a model of sustainable success using the Lakers’ talented young core and favorable cap situation to sign or trade for a second superstar to help LeBron win multiple championships as a Laker.
At the heart of that vision are the Lakers’ dynamic head coach Luke Walton and their transcendent point guard Lonzo Ball, both of whom LeBron has praised for their basketball smarts and fun and selfless approach to the game. Magic’s vision was in many ways a bold gamble that could have backfired as it was a pitch based on LeBron giving up the ball and control of the offense and playing the Lakers’ style of basketball rather than the other way around.
Magic’s vision also includes LeBron playing off the ball more and moving his game to the post much like Kobe and Michael did to extend their careers. This would take advantage of LeBron’s elite scoring and playmaking prowess from the elbows and free him of the need to dominate the ball and have to create for others, allowing him to rest and save energy that would be better used on the defensive end, which is an area he’s been forced to use for rest in the past.
The genius of Magic’s plan was it resonated so perfectly with what LeBron had been thinking after the Cavs abrupt exit from the Finals that he agreed to a 4-year long term $154 million contract to give Magic time to implement it. The immediate benefit is the Lakers aren’t under any immediate pressure to make a trade for or sign a second superstar, which most likely will give their budding young stars at least another full season to show what they can do.
So how does Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton make Lonzo and LeBron work? Does LeBron James change how the Lakers play or do the Lakers change how LeBron plays? Those are the questions Luke must answer when camp starts.
Luke’s top priority must be to build a strong relationship with LeBron James, who was the #1 over pick in the 2003 NBA Draft which ironically had the Los Angeles Lakers selecting Luke Walton with the 32nd pick in the same draft. LeBron may have agreed in principle with Magic as to what his potential role would be on the Lakers but it’s Luke who will have to sell LeBron the specifics of his role and how he would like to use him both on offense and defense.
First, Luke needs to sell LeBron on playing the Lakers’ style of basketball, which mean pushing the ball relentlessly on offense and switching everything aggressively on defense. Even with LeBron, the Lakers still want to play at a breakneck pace. Last year, they played at the third fastest pace in the league and scored a higher percentage of total points in transition than any team. Meanwhile, LeBron’s never played on a team ranked in the top ten in pace.
While LeBron had to dominate the ball to create offense for the Cavs, the Lakers want him instead to join with Lonzo and his teammates to keep the ball and players constantly moving rather than playing isolation basketball. In many ways, Luke is asking LeBron to adjust his game to the Lakers much like Kevin Durant adjusted his game to the Warriors. The payoff for LeBron would be the opportunity to have fun again and winning championships.
Next, Luke needs to convince LeBron to reduce his minutes and play more off the ball to preserve his energy, keep him healthy and fresh for the playoffs, and enable him to maintain his level of play and extend his legendary career. With a better starting lineup and deeper bench than the Cavs, the Lakers are hopeful LeBron will be able to significantly reduce last year’s 37 minutes per game and 31.9% usage rate to more reasonable and sustainable figures.
Finally, Luke must get LeBron to agree to filling the starting power forward and small ball center role Julius Randle filled last season. The Lakers envision LeBron taking over Randle’s role as their full-court coast-to-coast transition finisher and half-court clutch go-to shot and play maker. Without Randle or last year’s center Brook Lopez, the Lakers will need LeBron to play small ball center often and Luke needs to make sure LeBron is up for the challenge.
One of Luke’s strengths as a coach so far has been his ability to communicate and convince all his players to buy in on and support whatever he’s selling. Last season, it was about sharing the ball, pushing the pace, and not taking off possessions on offense. This season, LeBron changes everything as the Lakers change gears from developing players to winning games and making the playoffs. To do that, Luke will need to make Lonzo and LeBron work.
Taking the ball out of the hands of the best playmaker in the planet to give it to a second year point guard whose only played 52 games seems crazy until you remember basketball is a team game. Luke, Lonzo, and the Lakers are about versatility on offense with constant ball and player movement versus the isolation basketball LeBron’s played with the Cavs the last few years. As LeBron said, old habits die hard but with time and patience we can do it.
In the end, LeBron is doing exactly what Kevin Durant did, moving to a team that plays a more open and egalitarian style of basketball that would give him more fun, freedom, and opportunity to win rings and advance his legacy.