For the Lakers, LeBron James Gets a Look as Crunch-Time Point Guard

LeBron James, Lakers

Getty LeBron James, Lakers

LeBron James, point guard?

In 16 NBA seasons, James never has manned the point guard spot consistently in the technical sense. At each of his career stops, there usually has been a more standard point-guard type next to him, whether it was Mo Williams, Mario Chalmers or George Hill. James did, of course, play with All-Star Kyrie Irving at point guard in his second stint with the Cavaliers, but for the bulk of his career, he has been his team’s primary ballhandler, and whoever was listed at point guard mostly played off the ball.

Looking at his roster, though, Lakers coach Frank Vogel is ready to experiment with James in a point guard’s role. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reports that the Lakers have been working on late-game offense with James playing the 1 and new star big man Anthony Davis playing the center spot.

“I mean, we have so many different lineup packages that we can probably go to throughout the course of the season,” James said, according to ESPN. “So we’re just trying out a few things now in practice—going with smaller lineups, going with bigger lineups, going with quicker lineups, going with slower lineups. But that’s the luxury of having our personnel, we have the ability to do multiple things.”

It may not be much of a luxury for this Lakers team, though. Point guard is the weakest spot on the roster. Rajon Rondo started 29 games for the Lakers last season, but he shot 40.5 percent from the field and he is 33. He made a respectable 35.9 percent from the 3-point line, but his age is a big concern for L.A. In crunch time, his free-throw shooting (60.5 percent for his career) is an added concern.

Avery Bradley can handle the spot, but he is more of a shooting guard and has not played point guard much since his first three seasons in the NBA. Alex Caruso, who meshed well with James in limited minutes last year, will get a look as well.

Lakers Nixed a Summer Report James Would Start at Point Guard

The notion of having James at the point to close games revives a raft of summer speculation about James’ role with his revamped Lakers team, which has former Warriors reserve Quin Cook as the backup to Rondo. Using James at the point reduces L.A.’s reliance on Rondo and with a relatively capable rotation of wings and forwards—Bradley, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley—moving James makes some sense.

But the Lakers don’t want to wear James down. Back in July, reported that James would be slotted as the starting point guard for the Lakers. The team quickly shot down that report, with Vogel saying during an NBA TV interview from Summer League in Las Vegas that, “There’s no imminent plan to start LeBron at the point guard spot. A lot of different lineups and combinations have been discussed.”

James may be easing his way into a role in which he plays more point anyway. Even if he’s not the starter, the Lakers are at least working on having him be the point-guard closer.

Stats Support LeBron at Point Guard More Often

There’s good reason for that. James has been one of the most effective non-point-guard players in the league at running the pick-and-roll as a ballhandler. Late in close games, when the pace of play slows and halfcourt offense reigns, the Lakers won’t have many better options than setting up James and Davis in a 1-5 pick-and-roll.

That was something the Lakers were working out last year with Luke Walton at the helm. James had averaged a little more than five possessions per game in his final three seasons in Cleveland as a pick-and-roll initiator. Last year, his first in L.A., that number spiked by nearly 50 percent, with James running 7.5 pick-and-roll plays per game.

That was 15th-most in the league. And, as the chart below shows, James was very efficient in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 84th percentile. In fact, he’s always been good in that role.

Year PNR Poss/Gm   Rank   Pts/Poss Percentile
2018-19 7.5 15th 0.98 84th
2017-18 5.5 31st 1.02 91st
2016-17 5.0 34th 0.96 84th
2015-16 5.3 35th 0.89 78th

James said it doesn’t much matter to him whether he is on the ball or off. He’s done both.

Vogel should experiment freely with James as a point guard operating as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, especially in clutch situations. Sure, the roster makeup probably leaves Vogel little choice but to explore James taking on the point guard’s role. But down the stretch of games, the pick-and-roll is a must. James is quite good at running the play and has been for most of his recent career.

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