During This LeBron-less Test, Young Lakers Must Pass

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Usually swarmed by rows of media folks and surveilled by team security during his postgame interview, LeBron James’ STAPLES Center locker stood unattended late Sunday night. The white No. 23 jersey hung there, size 50, unused. Next to it were James’ game shorts, and the uniform was nestled amid a wide variety of warmup sweats, likewise hanging neatly.

Framed by the locker box, the gentle folds of the clothes pushed vertically against each other like closed stage curtains, appropriate on this rare night the LeBron show would not play.

Had the Lakers not just rallied to avoid losing their third consecutive game since James suffered his groin injury, the lonesome locker image would’ve been downright haunting. Instead, the Lakers had won—and the feelings that filled the room were the same as those first generated in Oakland on Christmas, when the Lakers sagged upon James’ injury but soon straightened to rise up over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in their building.

James strains left groin

James strains left groin in Oakland on Christmas Day

There is a feeling of empowerment when you prove something. The Lakers are trying not just to power through right now without James; they know what it would mean to prosper.

James has flatout acknowledged that he dials back at times on the court in hopes of giving his younger teammates opportunities to develop, saying a month ago: “How much do I defer and allow some of our young guys to kind of try to figure it out, and how much do I try to take over games?” He has noted the importance of “letting some of the young guys playmake and take big shots.” He has proclaimed the key to the Lakers’ fate will be how ready those teammates are to blossom as spring nears.

The Lakers’ young players know how much momentum they established late last season, and they know James made an investment in them by coming to Los Angeles. It’s only logical that the emotions are intensified right now while James is sidelined, because these moments matter more.

Sandwiched between those uplifting victories over the Warriors and Kings were the most disappointing losses of the season based on how somber the Lakers’ locker room was after a late collapse at Sacramento on Thursday and an overall collapse to the Clippers on Friday.

A few months down the line as we’re weighing the Lakers’ playoff readiness, we’re all going to look back on this stretch, however long it lasts, as a gauge for how dependent these Lakers are on James. Consequently, finding a way to win Sunday—and avoiding what would’ve been the team’s only three game losing streak since that stilted start of the season—was a confidence building moment.

“A big maturity game for us,” Josh Hart said. “We gave up one that we should’ve had to them [the Kings], and then we were up 10 to the Clippers last game, so we knew we had to bounce back. We had to grow up, man up and take defense personally and execute on the offensive end.”

The defensive intensity and offensive execution Hart cited are a lot of what it takes for the Lakers to win without James. Rebounding (the Lakers are now 9-2 when they get at least 50 rebounds) is even more critical for this group without James’ size and strength. It sure helps when someone else has a hot hand, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did in scoring his season high (26 points) Sunday. Yet in a basic sense, nothing is supposed to change when James is out.

Unselfishness, a longtime LeBron trademark, is as important as ever for the Lakers to maintain.

“That’s what we’ve been harping on all season,” JaVale McGee said. “Making the right play.”

Brandon Ingram knows how this trick works better than most. He is well aware how he grew his game last season with point guard Lonzo Ball sidelined, a team problem that challenged Ingram to orchestrate an individual solution with the ball in his hands more. A private chat then with Lakers coach Luke Walton drove home the realization that Ingram needed to bring an attack mentality to his version of being the point forward in order to open up the passing lanes that Ingram was deadset on utilizing. The Lakers wound up winning eight of 10 games in an uplifting January February 2018 stretch without Ball.

One of the issues this season has been Ingram misplacing that willingness to pass as he tries to make the most of his scoring chances next to James. Ingram’s assist average has dropped from 3.9 last season to 2.1 this season—and that’s after he piled up nine assists in the victory over the Kings. Ingram did not have a single assist in 33 minutes in the loss Friday to the Clippers, a reflection of the Lakers’ trouble maintaining that unselfish mindset without James on the court.

Kuzma drains the 3 against Kings

Kuzma drains the 3 against Kings

“Passing the ball and getting the best shot for our team, I don’t think we always do it,” Ingram said of himself and Kyle Kuzma, “because we’re naturally wanting to score the basketball.”

Behind Ingram’s nine assists, Kuzma had six assists in the victory over the Kings—tying Kuzma’s season high. On one play, Ingram even signaled to Kuzma to throw the proper crosscourt pass to Hart, leading to a Hart dunk.

“It’s the best way to play,” Ingram said. “No one wants to go in and just force shots or just put up 20 or 30 shots and not have teammates enjoy the win or whatever else we have going on. So, for guys to shoot threes and get excited and get to the lane and get excited, I think that’s the most joy for me.”

An extreme test of the iso ball trap the Lakers sometimes fall into is coming up Wednesday against Oklahoma City, as the Thunder have the league’s best defensive rating (101.7) and will demand the Lakers stick to quick ball movement, especially from side to side in the halfcourt.

It should be making the right plays, and that’s what we preach.

Luke Walton

Walton might’ve been even happier that Ingram came back with similar all around execution in practice Tuesday than about Ingram’s unselfish game Sunday. It’s about sustaining the lessons being learned. Asked about the pecking order for the offense without James, Walton said it’s not so much about personnel stepping up as it is about teamwork: “It should be making the right plays, and that’s what we preach.”

The most spectacular of those right plays Sunday was actually one when Ingram chose not to pass. He basically made a 7-footer standing directly in his path in the paint disappear with a ball fake—Willie Cauley-Stein fully buying Ingram would pass to McGee on the right, allowing Ingram to glide in for the second-quarter layup. It was so sweet that Hart was dancing in place on the court and James came to his feet off the bench in the corner with a scowl on his face.

The play was a plain demonstration of the threat of unselfishness opening up the chance for Ingram to score. It should be noted, though, that the play was actually triggered by an Ingram pass: After his aggressive defensive rebound and power dribble to avoid Kings guard Ben McLemore’s steal attempt, Ingram quickly threw the proper hit ahead outlet pass to Ball, who waited for the trailing Ingram to arrive and accept Ball’s on time pass back. It wasn’t even a logical transition opportunity, as every Kings player besides McLemore got back on defense ahead of Ingram—but the overall threat of the pass opened everything up. Beside McGee’s rim running, Kuzma had first filled the corner as a three point threat and Hart had flared to the wing as another option for Ingram to pass.

It was teamwork and unselfishness, even though it looked on the surface to be B.I.’s one man show.

And that is, in fact, often how the LeBron show actually goes.

James’ usage percentage (how many of a team’s plays someone uses while on the court) is 30.6, tied for fifth-highest in the league behind James Harden, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. James uses a lot of plays, as he should, except the defense is uniquely challenged to stop him because he is so willing to involve teammates via the pass.

It has been blatantly obvious in these three games without James (and Rajon Rondo) that the Lakers still look plenty good if they bring that James-like unselfishness and keep up their energy.

We can do more as a young core and as a team, we’re not just one player.

Kyle Kuzma

“Sometimes when LeBron’s not there,” McGee said, “we stand around and we’re stagnant.”

There’s no shame in it. The Lakers’ victory Sunday ended a 13 game losing streak for James’ teams when he’s out, dating back to March 2016 (in part because James had played 156 consecutive games).

However, the Lakers went into this season determined to be a different James team—not having to flow as much offense through him given how many ball handlers they have on the roster and how often they want to fast break.

Playing without James now is a test of that premise—and an opportunity to validate it.

“We can do more as a young core and as a team,” Kuzma said. “We’re not just one player”.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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