The image created by Artist/muralist Gustavo Zemeno, Jr. says everything. LeBron James, the greatest player on the planet, looking up at a pantheon of Lakers’ legends and embracing the storied power of Lakers’ Exceptionalism.
There seems to be little question LeBron is drinking the Lakers’ Kool-Aid. Why else would he suddenly be willing to change his game and change even his position to play with the Los Angeles Lakers? Why else would he agree to join a 35-win team that missed the playoffs the last five years, has a young core of promising but unproven talent, plays at a pace faster than he’s ever played, and wants to him to play off the ball and as a small ball center?
The simple truth is LeBron signed with the Lakers because they’re the Lakers, because he totally trusted Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and Luke Walton, because he wanted to play with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, because he believed that taking the baton from Kobe and helping return the Lakers to greatness and winning NBA championships with a third franchise would be the crowning achievement of his NBA legacy.
While pitching LeBron to change how he played to fit the Lakers rather than the other way around might have seemed like a risky proposition, it turned out to be a stroke of genius and a winning strategy that resonated with LeBron and confirmed the observations he himself had made during his last season with the Cavs and the conclusions his agent Rich Paul had reached working all year with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka as KCP’s agent.
The Kool-Aid the Lakers sold LeBron consisted of a radical plan to use him in a totally different way than teams had used him in the past. Instead of giving LeBron the ball, surrounding him with 3-point shooters, and letting him do his thing, the Lakers’ plan was to surround him with savvy playmakers and tough defenders and have him play off the ball and in the high post to save energy, keep fresh, reduce wear-and-tear, and hopefully extend his career.
Ironically, the Lakers’ Kool-Aid called for LeBron to stop playing the isolation style of basketball he played with the Cavs and instead embrace the perpetual ball-and-player movement style of basketball the Warriors used against him, including playing a lot of small ball center as he did versus Draymond Green. While LeBron is obviously physically capable of playing all five positions, the reality is he played less than 1% of his total minutes at center last season.
The Lakers are asking a lot of LeBron but he appears to be totally on board with playing more off the ball and even with playing some small ball center, jokingly reposting a Photoshopped image of a ‘Hulked up’ LeBron James with the caption “Luke said I may be playing more 5 this year.” They’ll have to prove that the Kool-Aid they’re drinking is real and morph the vision they shared into reality, which won’t be easy in the loaded Western Conference.
Drinking the Kool-Aid is one thing. Turning the vision into reality is another. While LeBron may be all in on giving up ball dominance, playing off the ball, and playing small ball center, these are all things he just hasn’t ever done. While it seems like a reasonable and even promising plan, the test will be whether it works and how LeBron will embrace the new role and position. I’d expect Luke to ease LeBron into the changes and to give him time to adjust.
Ideally, the Lakers hope to simply plug LeBron James into their base offensive and defensive schemes, make the necessary adjustments to take better advantage of him, and then continue to play their same style of basketball. The theory is it should be easier for LeBron to make a major adjustment to his game to fit the Lakers than for the young Lakers to change how they play to fit with LeBron. If successful, the Lakers could get out of the gate quickly.
Should problems occur, the Lakers should be in good position to make the adjustments to right the ship. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have done a great job adding versatility and depth to the Lakers young roster. Adding four proven veteran players with diverse talents will not only push the young core but also provide the team with valuable backups should the Lakers’ talented young core stumble or radical plans to integrate LeBron need to be adjusted.
Basketball is all about matchups. That’s what LeBron playing small ball is also all about: creating mismatches and forcing teams to adjust their game and play fast and small like the Lakers want to rather than the other way around. Magic and LeBron believe a Lakers’ ‘Death Lineup’ with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and LeBron James would be a game changer. That’s the Kool-Aid they’re drinking and hoping will transform the Lakers.
The Lakers believe LeBron James can not only resurrect the Lakers but also revolutionize the game itself in a way that no other current NBA player can. Time will tell whether they can convert the Kool-Aid into winning basketball.