Magic Johnson signed LeBron James when he was president of the Los Angeles Lakers, and while he left before the trade was consummated, he laid the groundwork for the Lakers to acquire Anthony Davis as well. Johnson resigned in 2019, but the Lakers won the championship behind James and Davis in 2020. Still, after a first-round exit against the Phoenix Suns, Johnson explained on ESPN's KJZ that he would use the two superstars differently (h/t Ron Gutterman of Laker Nation).
"Give LeBron and A.D. a shooter," Johnson said. "And also, tell A.D. he's going to have to play more center now. You can't allow him to say, 'Hey man I don't want to play center.' No no no no no, first of all you're with the Lakers and we're trying to win. And for me, I would move LeBron back down, we're asking him to do too much. You can't ask LeBron to be the point guard. That means you're working hard, you're bringing the ball up, getting everybody into the offense, so when can LeBron rest? You have to understand we want LeBron fresh for the playoffs. So let somebody else bring it to him."
It's not as though the Lakers haven't considered these approaches in the past. Davis has been vocal about his preference for playing power forward, but the Lakers devoted more than half of his minutes to the center position in the 2020 playoffs and won a championship as a result. Davis played considerably less at center this season, but as he was recovering from an injury, the Lakers chose to be cautious.
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The Lakers acquired Dennis Schroder to be their starting point guard in part to help get James exactly the sort of rest Johnson is advocating for. The decision yielded mixed results, and Johnson himself has criticized Schroder. "Schroder, I don't think he's a Laker," Johnson said earlier in June on AM570 LA Sports. "That's just my opinion. I don't know if they're gonna sign him back or not. I don't think he brings the winning mentality and attitude that we need, and he had a chance to show that in this series, and to me, he failed in this series. But again, if he comes back a Laker, I'm gonna support him, I'm gonna cheer for him and all that, but I just don't think he's a Laker." Schroder is a free agent this offseason.
The key to implementing Johnson's suggestion involves finding role players that make it possible. If the Lakers are going to play James off of the ball more, they are going to have to find a lead ball-handler that can also shoot well enough to work with James in ways that Schroder did not. Such players don't exactly grow on trees. If they want Davis to play center, they're either going to have to play him fewer minutes or find power forwards capable of defending centers so that Davis can remain fresh all season. Adding shooting, as Johnson suggests, is a necessity. The Lakers ranked 24th on offense this season largely because they ranked 24 in 3-point attempts and 21st in 3-point percentage. Maximizing James and Davis means spacing the floor properly for them so they can get to the basket.
Rob Pelinka will attempt to do just that this offseason, but there's a give and take involved in any move they make. The Lakers had the best defense in the NBA last season. Improving on offense will likely mean sacrificing some of that defensive excellence. Johnson left his post atop the Lakers, so now, it is up to Pelinka to strike that balance.