LeBron James, Lakers Are Fast, Fun, Flawed in 2018-19 Title Pursuit

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 19, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 02:  LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers high fives Rajon Rondo #9 during a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on October 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Anything could've happened in LeBron James' debut with the Los Angeles Lakers, which resulted in a 128-119 loss to the host Portland Trail Blazers while he recorded 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

Surrounded by new teammates and wearing the storied purple-and-gold uniform for the first time in his equally storied career—battling against a Western Conference foe for the first of many times in 2018-19 and playing at a breakneck pace—James found himself in a situation where unpredictability was the only predictable element. 

Could he operate at his peak level while running alongside a group of limited shooters after thriving for so many years in a drive-and-kick scheme? Could he maximize the talents of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and the other youngsters in Hollywood? Could he immediately push the Lakers past a Portland squad that advanced through the NBA's tougher half and made the 2018 playoffs before returning 11 players and the vast majority of its logged minutes from last year?

The answers, as you might expect, aren't simple. But the process of collecting our first data point of this new Lakers era sure made for 48 minutes of high-quality entertainment. 

From the opening tip, L.A. made clear its intention to feature James in a new manner. Gone are the days in which he'd slow the tempo and commandeer possessions through setup dribbles on the perimeter or interminable post-ups, probing the defense for either a scoring opportunity or a kick-out feed to an open teammate. Those possessions happened on occasion, but they came between lightning-quick transition opportunities for a team intent on pushing the pace. 

We haven't seen this before from a James-led squad. That's a factual statement, and not the least bit hyperbolic: 

Per NBA.com, the Lakers played with an estimated 113.5 pace over the course of the season's initial game. And though pace statistics vary slightly between sources, Basketball Reference shows that exactly zero Cleveland Cavaliers contests featured a more frenetic speed during the 2017-18 season. Taking it one step further, this was the single highest number recorded by a James-led team during his entire career.

This is already unabashedly uncharted territory, and the results began to justify the alterations made by head coach Luke Walton.

Just take a gander at James' first two buckets, both of which came via rim-rattling jams from a man in full-fledged freight-train mode:

By the end of the first half, Los Angeles, though trailing by two points to a Portland squad featuring a red-hot Nik Stauskas, had already racked up 50 points in the paint. With James in attack mode, the entire team pushing the tempo, JaVale McGee thriving and Rajon Rondo showing off both his creativity around the hoop and ESP-driven feeds, L.A. had no trouble scoring close to the hoop. 

Now that might sound familiar. 

Last year's Cavaliers were a middling squad in the painted area (No. 15 in per-game scoring), but hearkening back to LeBron's Miami days provides a semi-valid comparison: 

By the end of James' tenure with the Heat, they'd figured out how to excel in transition and attack the bucket in ceaseless fashion. But the methodology was still different. They did so without incessantly pushing the pace, instead taking advantage of their athletic superiority and ability to trade possessions between two slashing superstars—James and Dwyane Wade

The Lakers are doing both, which might lead to astronomical numbers for James. And when he puts up big figures, his team tends to fare well. The on/off splits usually show his squad thrives when he logs minutes. 

Still, that has a downside. When so much success stems from one player's efforts, the team can sputter without him, as was the case during Game 1 of this new adventure. Rondo's offensive brilliance on opening night helped mitigate some of the losses when James caught his breath, but even the distributing dynamo could only do so much.

In fact, the first time James rode the pine while wearing an L.A. uniform, his teammates ceded a 16-4 run that let Portland gain its first advantage of the night. By the time the final buzzer sounded in the nine-point loss that featured sloppy fourth-quarter play from the visitors, that split had diminished. But the Lakers were only outscored by four points in 37 minutes with him on the floor, as opposed to falling five more points behind in the 11 minutes he didn't play. 

Those numbers might normalize as Ball and other bench players on this revamped roster find their strides. But they still leave so much room for growth. 

After all, the blueprint in Los Angeles was obvious Thursday night: push the pace and let James overpower the opposition whenever possible; then take advantage of the many ball-handlers in other situations. But just as clear was the room for significant improvement. 

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 18:  LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second quarter of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on October 18, 2018 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

We won't focus on the defensive mishaps, of which James himself was frequently guilty. That's a topic for another time, though it's important if the Lakers are to not only make the Western Conference playoffs but also make noise within them. 

Even if the Lakers play lackluster defense—allowing far too many offensive rebounds (Portland had 14) and missing basic rotations that allow uncontested looks at the hoop—they can survive through sheer offensive excellence. Of course, that's only true if they continue to push a pace that slowed noticeably in the second half and discover some semblance of shooting ability. 

That's where James' room to grow is most obvious. 

His six assists in his franchise debut would've topped just eight efforts from the prior go-around, though that's inevitable when the Lakers could only muster a 7-of-30 performance from beyond the rainbow. James feasts on kick-outs to shooters in the corners, and he put a handful of those feeds right in a teammate's breadbasket Thursday night, only to see the ensuing attempts clang off a Moda Center rim. 

Shooting growth has to come if this team is to maximize its potential—and James' along with it. Part of that will arrive via natural regression to the mean, but the roster also needs someone to evolve as a perimeter marksman. Maybe Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets more involved. Perhaps Ball, who's not shy about firing away, will show off his new form with a few more splashes. Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, who ended the team's 0-of-15 dry spell from deep with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter, could become deadly.

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 18: Josh Hart #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a three point basket at the 3rd quarter buzzer against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 18, 2018 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The bad news for Los Angeles is the dearth of established shooting scattered throughout the depth chart. The good news is the plethora of options that roster could eventually provide, and James will spend much of the year trying to promote that exact type of development. 

Lest we forget, this is a learning process for everyone involved. Even a 33-year-old GOAT candidate with an unimpeachable resume isn't immune to growing pains when feeling out a new set of compatriots this early in the calendar. He lost his Miami debut eight years ago, then dropped the first game of the season yet again upon his return to Northeast Ohio in 2014. We're not traversing new territory with struggles in the season opener.

But the pieces are still in place for something special. 

At the very least, Walton's uptempo desires will lead to jaw-dropping numbers for the perennial MVP candidate. And if the Lakers learn how to shoot while gaining the confidence necessary to keep pushing the pace for all four quarters, the ceiling could rise quite a bit higher for an organization looking to stop the longest playoff drought in franchise history at five years. 

           

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.comNBA Math or ESPN.com.

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