The Los Angeles Lakers got LeBron James on Sunday and immediately started launching heat checks. Their first move was agreeing to bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a $12 million deal, and things got much weirder from there: A one-year deal for Lance Stephenson for $4.4 million (the room exception), a one-year minimum deal for JaVale McGee and, Monday, a one-year, $9 million deal for Rajon Rondo.
What on Earth is happening? Well, that's, uh, complicated, so let's ask five smaller questions:
Why give Stephenson the room exception?
It's not a crazy amount of money for a solid reserve, but it just seemed odd. To do this on July 1, the first day of free agency? Why not wait and see who else is willing to take that kind of contract? Are we even sure he's better than Josh Hart? I am not.
Stephenson is a creative playmaker and an underrated passer. He is tough and can defend multiple positions. He can swing the momentum of a game, both for better and for worse. He shot 29 percent from 3-point range last year, though, so I'm not sure he should be spending significant time playing next to James. And if he's mostly going to play while James is on the bench, he probably shouldn't have been offered more than the minimum.
Is McGee supposed to be the starter?
Credit where it is due: McGee played his role well in two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, and he was awesome in this year's NBA Finals. If his job is to simply to set some screens, space the floor vertically and block some shots, he has proven that he can do that, even if his team defense is still a problem. His former teammates with the Warriors loved creating dunk opportunities for him and you can bet that James and Lonzo Ball will, too. Remember when James made J.J. Hickson look good all those years ago? Remember when Chris "Birdman" Andersen basically never missed while he was a member of the Heat? This signing is not some sort of joke, despite McGee's reputation.
I can't help but wonder, though, what the Lakers are planning to do with McGee. Is there still a chance they will bring Brook Lopez back? Are they looking at adding DeMarcus Cousins, as TNT's David Aldridge suggested? (Update: .) They only have about $5.6 million of cap space left if they don't use the stretch provision to waive Luol Deng, and they might want to use that on a shooter (more on that soon).
If they don't add another big man, then McGee could be counted on as much more than the situational player he was in Golden State. That is risky.
What is Rondo's role?
According to USA Today's Sam Amick, Rondo has not been told he will be Ball's backup. He is expecting to compete for the starting spot. This is a strange situation, given that Ball was the No. 2 pick in last year's draft and Magic Johnson declared him "the new face of the Lakers" .
Rondo's lack of gravity on the perimeter is such an obvious concern that it feels silly to even point it out. He played well for the New Orleans Pelicans last year, but that was a totally different situation and everybody understood he was the floor general. Usually, when you're looking for a point guard to put next to James, you're looking for someone who can make open shots and defend with intensity. Rondo has his own strengths -- and hey, LeBron did say he valued basketball IQ -- but he is an unconventional choice.
If Rondo is simply a reserve guard who comes in and runs the show for 15-20 minutes a game, this could work out. If Ball is included in a deal for Kawhi Leonard and Rondo becomes the starter, this could work out. This could also, however, end up being a pretty awkward fit.
Shouldn't the Lakers care more about shooting?
Um, probably. James surely wanted more playmaking around him than he had in his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but this seems like an overreaction to that. Los Angeles coach Luke Walton has always wanted to run a system with multiple playmakers and beautiful ball movement, but Rondo and Stephenson can be ball-stoppers.
The Lakers could definitely use a sharpshooter on the wing and a stretch-four. If they don't add anybody who fits either of those descriptions, they will be betting on internal improvement. Kyle Kuzma might be able to bring his 36.6 percent 3-point percentage up when he's receiving passes from the likes of James, Rondo and an improved Ball. As funky as Ball's shot looks, he could become more consistent with his long-range jumper in his second season.
It is notable, though, that James' current supporting cast is mostly guys who James can make better, rather than the other way around. In order for James to have an ideal amount of room to operate with the ball in his hands, he needs floor-spacers.
Has Los Angeles lost its mind?
Too early to say. A Leonard trade could happen anytime. The presence of LeBron could lure otherwise unattainable free agents to town on discount deals. It would be unfair to seriously criticize the front office that just successfully recruited James before we see how this roster comes together. As presently constructed, though, the roster looks like this:
- Starters: Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, James, McGee
- Reserves: Kuzma, Hart, Rondo, Stephenson, Deng, Moritz Wagner, Ivica Zubac
That is wild. There are surely more moves to come.