No player in the NBA has more impact on a game than LeBron James.
The question is, what does that mean for his new teammates and how they can tailor their games to create the best fit for the team? And how will LeBron’s presence on the floor create easier opportunities to succeed?
Along those lines, what about the rest of the veteran acquisitions the Lakers made over the summer?
The Lakers coaching staff has been watching film, reading articles and talking to friends and colleagues around the league in preparation for training camp, just a month and a half away, trying to get a jump on some of those questions.
We sat down with Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys to discuss, and tilted the chat towards the young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac.
Below is a transcription of our conversation:
MT: How do you see these acquisitions, of course led by LeBron, integrating with the culture you guys have been trying to build here under Luke Walton for the past two seasons?
Mermuys: It fits perfect from a standpoint of our main thing, the first thing, the staple of Coach Walton’s vision: competitiveness. I feel like the team that Rob and Magic have put together, you have a ton of competitors. Guys that get after it. That compete at a high level and want to win, and do whatever it takes to win. From that standpoint, we’re excited. It should be an awesome training camp.
MT: With LeBron specifically, what do you think the young guys get when he walks in the door? Everything changes the minute he walks in, right?
Mermuys: Well, coaching in the NBA is so different from college. We’re all in it together, and your job is to guide and to hold guys accountable, but really, it’s always the players’ team. It’s not the coaches’ team, it’s the players’ team, much more so than in college. When they have ownership over that team, and coaches are there to guide and help, that’s when you really get that success and you really see that on the court. You can feel it and watch it. I think that’s why everyone is so enamored with Golden State. You can tell it’s their team. They’re on the same wavelength. They have a vibe of knowing what each guy can do and where he’s going to be at the right time. So I think a player like LeBron is able to foster that environment. And with these young guys being able to see that, with Luke and us all stewarding that as well, when it comes from within it’s another view and angle where it really hits home for them. They take ownership of it, they start to buy in, they see it, they see they have success with it, and someone out on the floor is directing and helping that. Because LeBron makes people better, because his habits are at a championship level – he’s going to be the hardest worker, he’s going to be the most knowledgeable experience wise – all those things help the young players get to a higher level.
MT: There was clear development last year for the young guys. How much of a step did you see taking this offseason regardless of what free agents were brought in?
Mermuys: Yeah, they were gonna take a jump no matter what, and that’s just from the competitive standpoint that we talked about. The front office has done a great job of bringing in guys that love to play, that love to hoop, that love to work, that want to get better, that are coachable and listen and take the knowledge and apply it. And then Luke does such a great job of building confidence and building an environment where guys are able to make mistakes and not really get down on themselves or fear coming out. He’s such an empowering force in that way, which speeds their development. So they’re on a great trajectory, but adding a player like LeBron can only help those guys. It’s an unbelievable opportunity for them to learn from one of the best to ever do it, and they should be extremely excited. Knowing our guys, I’m sure they’re ecstatic.
MT: Have you noticed that in the building since LeBron signed?
Mermuys: That’s what’s great about a player of that caliber. Naturally, if you’re a competitor and you have a passion for what you’re doing, whether that’s coaching, ticket sales, training room, media – everyone, especially the players, are going to raise their level. You’re going to want to meet that expectation. You’re going to be energized by that. That’s just an energizing force. When you have LeBron James in your organization, I think it’s going to pick everyone’s level up.
MT: We’ve heard from Pelinka, Magic and Luke about how they were immediately impacted upon hearing LeBron was coming. How does an assistant coach react to such news?
Mermuys: For me personally, I like to have as much information as possible. So as soon as you get an acquisition like that, you’re in research mode. I’m reading books, I’m watching film, I’m diving into his career, into the history, into things that have gone great and haven’t gone great. You’re just completely acquiring as much information as possible on and off the court. All these things to make better, informed decisions. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Studying and gathering numbers, line ups, combinations, videos, what plays guys like. There are a million things you have to get done to be able to help these guys, to put them in a position to succeed. Since I found out, I’ve been on the clock making sure I’m getting enough done every day to be ready for training camp.
MT: I know you have to avoid talking specifically about strategy, but generally speaking, the game has changed so much in the past few years. LeBron can play all five positions like few players ever, and I wonder how differently a coach can approach things given how the game has evolved?
Mermuys: To be super general, the game has naturally moved towards positionless basketball. The guys have gotten bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled, and the game is just developing at such a high rate that the beauty of the vision and what we have to work with is we have a lot of positionless basketball players. Guys that can make a play, that can do multifaceted things. If you look across the roster, there are a lot of guys who can play multiple positions and to multiple things. That, in today’s NBA, is a weapon. There’s no doubt about that.
MT: What stands out most about Rajon Rondo to you?
Mermuys: It’s a hit-you-in-the-face obvious thing. You don’t have to be an NBA coach to see that he is mentally at a different level than most guys. He just knows how to exploit defenses. There are a lot of players in the NBA that are just playing basketball, and are really talented, playing off their instincts. When they see something, they change their direction because their body tells them, ‘I need to get around this guy and use my left hand.’ Well, what Rondo’s doing is on two, three, four levels deeper than that. Not only is he playing as a basketball player, but he's playing chess, because he knows the defense that the team is in, he knows the weaknesses of that defense, he knows the positioning of the weak side of that defense. He knows tendencies of players and knows how to exploit them. He’s basically an NBA coach playing basketball, which for a coaching staff, that is the most valuable thing possible. Because you basically have one of your assistants on the floor.
MT: It does seem that there are a few head coaches who don’t want that level of control for a player on the floor, that want to dictate every possession … but that’s not how Walton coaches, from my perspective. Isn’t he more into empowering players, trusting guys…
Mermuys: One of the beauties of Luke is that he’s low ego. He’s not trying to do anything besides what’s best for the team and what’s best for winning. There’s not a lot of grey area in that for him. In basketball in general, especially in the NBA, there are so many decisions to be made in a 48-minute game. There are a lot of 50-50 decisions, and not a lot of clear-cut answers. There’s not one way to do something. It’s more if you believe in it and how hard you’re going to do it. Luke is the type of guy where he’s OK as long as it’s in the spirit of competitiveness and there’s joy and team behind it. Then he’s down to go with anyone’s idea, and not just Rondo’s. Could be anybody. That to me is what players want. That confidence from their leader that he believes in their decisions and he’s going to support them if the decision doesn’t work. He’s not going to throw them under the bus. He’s going to take the hit for it. Luke’s great at that.
MT: Rondo’s a career 30.9 percent three-point shooter, and Lonzo was at 30.5 percent as a rookie. How can their reputations as non-shooting point guards – even if Lonzo, especially, can get significantly better – impact a coaching staff?
Mermuys: Offensively, what you’re trying to coach for all those guys doesn’t have to do with position or player or shooting ability. It’s more shot selection. What is a great shot for our team? What’s an OK shot to a bad shot? When you do it that way, Luke especially – and I think our staff as a whole – aren’t into limiting guys’ potential and what they can and cannot do. We want to show belief and support and confidence in our players. That means letting guys shoot it when they’re open. It’s just about the timing of the shot. Where it’s coming from. The flow. How many times we pass it. How many times we’ve been to the paint. Is the defense broken down. But every guy that’s out there has to be ready to catch and shoot and let it fly with confidence. It doesn’t matter who’s taking them, but let’s take the great shots.
MT: The Lakers finished last season 29th in three-point percentage at 34.5 percent, but the team did get significantly better as the season went on. In fact, before the All-Star break, you were at 33.3 percent (29th), and after, up to 36.8 percent, which was 10th in the NBA. In terms of makes, it went from 9.2 makes per game (23rd) up to 11.8 (7th). To what do you attribute that, and is it encouraging for 2018-19 even given the roster changes?
Mermuys: What I’d attribute that to is the beginning of the season is a learning process, and it has a lot of ups and downs, because everyone is trying to figure out where they can help the team the best and fit in within the framework. Especially teams that don’t have continuity, where you’re putting a bunch of new pieces in like we’re doing (and did last year). There’s no miracle cure for that. But once guys settle into their role and figure out where they fit in, there’s better chemistry, and guys are more comfortable. That comfortability creates more confidence, which creates more made shots. That’s just a time thing, and as long as everyone is trying to do their best to get to that point, I think we have guys that will knock down shots.
MT: Seems obvious that LeBron especially, but Rondo as well, will help their teammates’ shooting numbers go up at least a bit based on knowledge of offense and delivery of the basketball?
Mermuys: In a very general way, yes. They’re amazing passers and playmakers, they’re reading defenses at an unbelievable level and are creating easier shots for guys. The easier the shot, the more the guy is going to make it. There’s definitely a lot more that goes into it, but overall, yes.
MT: Your first thought about having Lance Stephenson on the roster?
Mermuys: Every time I’ve coached against Lance, he’s just a wildcard. You’re fearful, because you know he’s going to bring it. You know he’s going to compete. You can tell he loves to hoop, and he’s really dangerous. Now, there are times where he doesn’t have success, but his baseline of trying at a high level, being fearless and competing at a high level is there every time. So as an opposing coach, you’re afraid of that. You know on any given night, he can beat you, because he’s super talented. He does have basketball skills that you can’t teach. He brings a dynamic when he’s on your side as a weapon that’s hard to game plan for.
MT: When Michael Beasley signed, I thought of the second game in a back-to-back in Detroit or Milwaukee in January, when the offense is stalling, and Luke can look to the bench, call Beasley’s number and get 15 points in 10 minutes. Perhaps I’m limiting him there and he’ll even earn more of a rotation spot … but how do you look at Beasley?
Mermuys: Michael Beasley is one of the hardest guys to guard in the NBA. That’s just fact. He’s one of the best 1-on-1 players in the league. With his size and his scoring ability, he’s tough. Having a guy like that on your roster is always beneficial. You always need a bucket getter. There are times guys just don’t have it going, there’s fatigue, there’s travel, there are schedule games that are a monster, there are back to backs. There are so many things in the NBA where having a bucket getter is really valuable, so having Michael Beasley on your roster is a nice asset.
MT: JaVale McGee was really good in the Finals last year against LeBron and the Cavs, and didn’t play much in other matchups, like against Houston. What can he give you?
Mermuys: JaVale is dynamically talented because of his length and size and athleticism. So,
with that in mind, when you have a player like LeBron, who makes people better, there’s excitement because you’re hopeful that, if LeBron makes the game easier for JaVale, that could be a problem for other teams.
MT: So collectively, you have several veteran players there, and mix them in with the young core. How does a coaching staff navigate through figuring out playing time, which is one of Luke’s many responsibilities?
Mermuys: Coaching in the NBA is an incredible challenge, and that’s why we all do it. When you have success, it’s the most rewarding. It’s a problem, for sure, but a great problem to have. You have tons of weapons and there are only so many minutes for guys to play. But it creates more competition and an environment where guys have to bring it to earn their time and earn Luke’s trust. So much goes into that. Their work habits, their buy in, their shot selection, their defense, their effort, the little microcosms of the game. We’re going to take all that into account and then Luke has to make tough decisions about who he thinks is going to help us nightly to win that game, and that’s always changing. It’s always dynamic, but it creates a heck of an environment. You can’t really relax, you can’t really rest because there’s some depth there and a guy right behind you ready to go. It’ll be exciting to see how it all works out.
MT: LeBron has been so ubiquitous for so many years now that this might be a hard question, but what’s the one thing that stands out the most when you consider having him on the Lakers?
Mermuys: The thing I always get back to with great players that I learned under Coach (George) Karl when I first got into the NBA was that the greatest players do make amazing plays, but what makes them great is they make the easy, right play eight or nine times out of 10. When you watch LeBron on film, and especially when you’re dissecting him, how he makes the right play ALL the time is just so incredible. And they could be just easy chest passes to the next guy, but at that time, where the defense was, time and score, flow of the game, all that … it was the right play. And you see that from him time and time again. I think that goes unnoticed, because what you really remember is the dunk or the chase down block. Those things are incredible, but from a coaching standpoint, what’s even more impressive than that is the eight right easy plays he makes out of the last 10 possessions to make his teammates better and to help his team win. From that standpoint, making those types of plays for guys who are competitors, hungry, talented that want to get better and want to win, that have a hunger to try and get to the top of the mountain in the NBA, which we have, that’s exciting.
MT: Lonzo Ball has this natural way of making the right play off his instincts. How does he narrow the gap from there to the level that LeBron does it?
Mermuys: Lonzo right now as a young player is doing that off instincts, without always putting thought behind it. But as you play 10, 12 years in the NBA and have seen the same movie over and over again, all it does is enhance those instincts. The game becomes slower and slower and slower, and you’re reading defenses, bodies on the court, positions and spacing.
MT: How do the vets coming in help Lonzo?
Mermuys: With how unselfish he is and how he plays the game, looking for his teammates and looking to help his teammates as a true point guard or old school point guard, the more experienced players around him the easier it is for him to do that. When you’re (playing with) that style of play with a bunch of young guys that are still figuring it out like you are, that’s harder.
MT: Brandon Ingram had that great stretch in February where he averaged 18-5-5 with excellent shooting numbers, and for the season, was just generally much better than he was a 19-year-old rookie in basically every category. How might LeBron and the other new vets specifically impact him?
Mermuys: It’s exciting to see where B.I. takes this. Because there is a ton of potential there for him. He has to get out there with these guys and figure it out. It’s going to take some time for him to really figure out where he can be his best with a player like (LeBron). Obviously, none of these guys have played with a player like that. So there’s going to be a learning curve. But because of (Ingram’s) size, length, slashing ability, passing ability … there’s a lot of upside there for him. It’s incredible to me that he’s (not turning 21 until September). In the stretch where he was so great that you alluded to, he was playing a lot of backup point, and that would be the most exciting part of it. We talked about positionless basketball and the dynamics of that and for another team to have to defend against that. It’s just really valuable when you have a 6’9’, 6’10’’ dude that can shoot turnarounds, handle in pick and rolls, make pocket passes, Euro step from the free throw line for a layup. That’s just hard to guard. And the older he gets, the stronger he’s going to get, the longer those strides are going to get, the more contact he’s going to be able to take. So when you’re working with that frame, what he was able to do in February, his ability to do a bunch of different things is exciting, especially for a fit alongside a guy like LeBron.
MT: I had a conversation with Ingram last year where he discussed how difficult it was to carry a full load offensively, as he was in February, and also have energy to make a big impact defensively. Gotta imagine LeBron takes up so much of the offensive burden that a player like Ingram will have more to give defensively?
Mermuys: Yeah, that’s not just for Brandon. That goes for all those guys. When you get LeBron, now guys have to find where they can help our team win. Where they can have the most impact. If that means taking down some usage offensively, then let’s save that energy and put it in somewhere else. It could be rebounding. Could be on ball defense. Weak side defense. Let’s maximize everything we have, and all our guys, including the veterans, are going to have to do that. Everyone is going to have to put a little bit more in the tank in other areas. That’s our job as coaches, to help that process, to make them aware of it, encourage them to do it and help them when they’re frustrated doing it to get through those times. Because it’s not easy, and not always what’s best for them individually. That’s a team in the NBA putting it all out there towards winning and what’s best for the team. That’s the challenge every team has to start the season, and it’s always different and a little bit more when you have a player like LeBron.
MT: That made me think of Kuzma, who was so great as a scorer early in the season. But Luke made a specific effort to find a way to get him to buy into doing more, and to his credit, Kuzma seemed to embrace that when it could have been easy for him to do the opposite…
Mermuys: I tip my hat to Jesse Buss, the scouting staff, the front office for drafting those types of guys, because those guys are hard to identify. I’ve done a lot of NBA coaching now, and for a guy to be scoring and getting a ton of attention with the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie … who wasn’t highly sought after or a high draft pick … and to be told by his coaches when he’s getting all this great attention that that’s not good enough and we need you to play winning basketball, which means you have to play defense and do other things besides score and make highlights on ESPN … and for Kuz to actually take that in, to accept it and apply it, which he really did, was so impressive. He made strides defensively the second half of the season and really tried to play winning basketball instead of scoring, bad basketball, is just a tribute to his family, to the people that raised him, the coaches he’s had. That’s such a high-character thing, and the degree of difficulty for a young person to do that in the NBA is really, really high. So for everybody involved, I tip my hat, but especially to Kuz. It was impressive.
MT: As such, you have to be encouraged about how the young guys will respond to LeBron and the vets coming in?
Mermuys: Yeah, when you go from a young team and a developing team where those guys were getting all the touches, play calls, crunch time minutes to a team with more established players, that is a really hard transition for players. To have a big piece of the pie and then their piece gets smaller. That’s hard for anyone in any life, in any business. But the confidence (for us as coaches) you’re talking about comes from those guys being great dudes. They really care. They really want to win. They compete at a high level. And they’ve shown the ability to be coached, and buy into the team, and do what’s best for the team already as young players. So yeah, that’s exciting. It makes that job a little bit easier because you have faith in them as people that they’re going to be able to get through this transition and come out the other side of it, and we’ll be a better team for it.
MT: How has what Josh Hart has done this offseason, from workouts at the facility to being the MVP in Vegas, impacted the way you think about him moving forward?
Mermuys: I was really happy for him, because he actually played really good basketball for us last season, and that was a little overlooked because of our other rookies. Lonzo and Kuz generated a lot of attention. So as a guy that was doing what he was doing under the radar, with the amount of time he’s put into his game this summer, for him to go out there and play well, get an MVP, have some of that hard work pay off, get a little love for the things he’s been able to do, I was super happy for him because he deserves it. He’s handled himself really professionally. He’s shown that physicality, that toughness, which is super valuable in today’s NBA. With him showing an ability to make shots at summer league and his ability to attack the rim and finish and those things? The better the talent on the roster, the more valuable those little things become. So he has an unbelievable opportunity because he has a little bit of a niche already established. His game isn’t all over the place, it���s more focused. He can really fit into what we’re doing with more established players.
MT: Watching the playoffs last year, it was really easy envisioning how Hart could fit in on a really good team. Seems like an easy guy for the coaches to trust in high leverage situations, though of course he’ll have to prove that.
Mermuys: It makes him a candidate to finish games, which every player wants. He rebounds at a high level and he’s able to switch on bigger guys and hold his own. He plays physical. He’s strong. Just those things right there, in a closing five minutes of a game, are extremely valuable. You really have to bring it if you’re going to do those things. You have to be playing really well, so that creates competition, and it’s going to be a fight. Guys have to perform to be able to close games for us.
MT: Finally, how can Ivica Zubac benefit from LeBron and other vets coming in?
Mermuys: Those guys make the game easier for big guys, and Zu is a big boy. He’s skilled. He’s massive out there. He changes shots in the paint and at the rim when he’s playing big and confident. Young players always are on a little bit of a rollercoaster, and I think you saw that with Zu. He’d have great games, and he’d have bad games, and that’s part of developing in the NBA. But, when you have better players, especially for big guys, it makes the game a lot easier for you to be more consistent. He could be competing for minutes, we’ll just have to see how it goes for him.