The LeBron Effect: How LeBron James impacted his Lakers teammates
Given the monumental impact that star players have in the NBA, the simple fact that basketball is a team game can often get overlooked. One of the defining tests of NBA superstardom is a player’s ability to positively influence his teammates’ play. Stars can improve a teammate’s play through not only their own play, but also their presence; the greatest players of all-time carry an aura with them that embodies winning.
Four-time NBA champion and Finals MVP LeBron James has illustrated this aura throughout the entirety of his 17-year career. James has the power to thrust his teammates into an unfamiliar position — directly in the spotlight.
If these players deliver when they are called upon, their legacies are cemented next to role players like Steve Kerr, whose famous 1997 Finals-winning shot lives on eternally in the Role Player Hall of Fame. Failure to deliver, however, means a player will be exposed to a level of scrutiny unlike ever before. This phenomenon experienced by James’ teammates can be known as the “LeBron Effect.”
James’ impact on his teammates is so profound that his influence was felt not just by younger players, but also by accomplished veterans like Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo over last season.
Here is a look at how James impacted the play of his teammates last season.
Howard, Rondo experience veteran resurgence
Before their tenures with the Lakers, it seemed both Howard and Rondo were more destined for stardom in Ice Cube’s BIG3 league than a return to their NBA glory. And while a lack of talent was hardly the issue for either of the former All-NBA selections, accountability was.
After stops in five different cities over the past five seasons, Dwight Howard arrived in Los Angeles on a last-chance deal. Playing alongside James sparked a newfound commitment to winning in Howard. For the first time in his career, he embraced his ideal role as a rim-protecting screen setter.
Even when Howard was scoring over 20 points a night, he was never a great low post scorer, as most of his offense depended on his otherworldly athleticism. Despite this, Howard adamantly maintained his status among the league leaders in post-ups year after year. During the 2017-18 season (Howard’s last full season before this year), he ranked third in the NBA with 331 field goal attempts off post-ups. Low post scoring requires a soft-touch and grace that has eluded Howard his entire career.
James and the Lakers unlocked the optimal version of Howard. Instead of stagnating their offense by throwing the ball into a stationary Howard on the low block, Los Angeles leveraged his athleticism and screen-setting ability. In 69 games this season, Howard only attempted 23 shots out of post-ups.
While Howard deserves credit for making the long-overdue adjustments to his game, it’s impossible to imagine him embracing a limited role off the bench that didn’t come at the James’ behest.
For as good as Howard was, Rondo’s resurgence was far more vital to the Lakers’ championship run. James’ greatest impact on Rondo came in the form of trust.
One of the hardest parts for any great NBA player is determining what responsibilities they can delegate over the course of 48 minutes. For a player with James’ playmaking prowess, conceding touches in the postseason and allowing a teammate to initiate the offense can be risky. But having an unflappable veteran point guard capable of taking the reins of the offense goes a long way in easing that feeling.
Rondo averaged 6.6 assists per game in the playoffs and served as the guiding hand for the Lakers’ bench units. In Los Angeles’ Game 4 win in the NBA Finals, Rondo orchestrated the pick and roll that ultimately set up Anthony Davis for the game-sealing three with under a minute remaining. Rondo is unafraid of any moment, and following the Lakers’ defeat in Game 5, he took the onus upon himself to put the Miami Heat away in Game 6.
Rajon Rondo has another ring on his mind.
He’s 5-5 from the field.
— theScore (@theScore) October 12, 2020
Rondo began the game shooting 5-for-5 as part of a 19-point effort in the series’ closeout game. Aggressive drives in semi-transition opportunities like the one above depict how he sliced through Miami’s defense. As the postseason continued, Rondo looked more comfortable in not only attacking the basket, but also shooting.
For the playoffs, Rondo shot 40 percent (20-of-50) from three, a vast improvement for the career 31.6 percent long-range shooter. Although it seems highly unlikely that Rondo’s success from deep will translate over the course of an entire season, the threat of a jump shot alone made Rondo far more dangerous in the pick and roll. Even in the games that he did not shoot well, Rondo remained engaged and did the little things crucial for winning.
Establishing a name
While James helped redefine the narratives surrounding some of the Lakers veterans’ careers, he also helped shape those of the younger Lakers. Alex Caruso went from a beloved meme on NBA Twitter to an invaluable piece capable of locking down opposing perimeter players and hitting timely shots.
In the 560 regular minutes that James and Caruso shared the floor, Los Angeles outscored their opponents by a staggering 18.6 points per 100 possessions. It did not matter who else occupied the other three spots on the floor, as James and Caruso’s presence in a lineup alone ensured the Lakers’ success.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. While no one has perfected the chase down quite like James, Caruso’s rejection of James Harden on the play below was a visual embodiment of the effort Caruso plays with nightly. Unparalleled energy and passion paired with James’ unwavering confidence in him turned Caruso into a necessary ingredient in the Lakers championship recipe.
CARUSO CHASEDOWN BLOCK ON HARDEN.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 13, 2020
No Lakers player felt the negative aspects of the LeBron Effect more than Danny Green. In Game 5, James presented Green with his Steve Kerr opportunity, but history had other plans.
One missed shot does not define a legacy, but one made shot can. Even though the Lakers still went on to win the series and Green is now a three-time NBA champion, he will likely never get a chance at basketball immortality again. But even for as painful as the miss was, Markieff Morris’ turnover on the play was far more egregious, as James was standing wide open on the wing when Morris heaved the lob pass out of bounds.
While James’ latest Finals victory has breathed new life into the G.O.A.T debate, do not expect his approach to falter. As the King continues chasing the legacy of a ghost in Chicago, he must continue to expect the same greatness he requires of himself from his teammates.