With less than a minute to go and the score tied in Sacramento, the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to stave off a 15-point comeback attempt by the Kings and grind out a road win. LeBron James is hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles after straining his groin two nights prior at Golden State.
Second-year forward Kyle Kuzma gladly steps into the void, taking the ball on the left wing and shrugging off a Josh Hart screen. Kuzma dribbles the ball back and forth, measuring the distance between himself and fellow 2017 draftee Justin Jackson‘s 6-foot-11 wingspan. On the fourth dribble, the young Laker gathers, steps back behind the 3-point line and swishes the shot through with 41.2 seconds left.
“I want those shots,” Kuzma said afterward, acknowledging the possession despite the Lakers ultimately blowing the game. “I work really hard on my game, super confident, especially in moments like that, I always want the ball.”
Of course, he won’t always get the ball in that spot when James is around. Lakers coach Luke Walton has repeatedly called James the “best closer in the game” and the team’s clear No. 1 option.
But as James rehabs an injury that has him sidelined indefinitely, the question is:
Who is the Lakers’ best second option?
Whether by chance or by choice, nearly every roster that has succeeded has followed some level of hierarchy. James affirmed as much when asked during training camp.
“It’s established by experience, knowledge of the game, what you’ve done in your career … that’s why we have rookies and veterans, and that’s just been from the first day of time,” James told ESPN.
When James rejoined Cleveland in 2014, that pecking order wasn’t easy to decipher. Kevin Love came to the Cavaliers after being the face of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise for years. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters were the incumbent Cavs relied upon for the bulk of the team’s scoring in previous seasons.
It took a lot of pushing and pulling — and eventually a trade that sent Waiters away — to find a workable chemistry. Ultimately, James won out when governing that group, arranging the pieces in a way that fit his game best.
James says the young talent on the Lakers — two former No. 2 overall picks in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball as well as late-first-rounders in Kuzma and Hart — doesn’t bring the same challenges as that Cavs season.
“Zo and B.I., they’re very, very quiet,” James told ESPN. “Very quiet. They more just want to play. Kyrie and Dion were a little more outspoken, as people saw, before I got there and when I got there. They were more outspoken about what they want, what they don’t like.
“So you just have to learn personalities and see how you can get the most out of them.”
And while James tries to coax potential into production, the players themselves are trying to identify how their abilities fit with such a defined skill set.
With Irving, that friction and pressure sparked growth, even if it was ultimately unsustainable, as the All-Star guard requested a trade out of Cleveland.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Irving told ESPN when asked about playing alongside James. “You now become part of a championship-caliber team based on a unique talent. LeBron is so smart, so talented, such a strong leader. And you’re trying to implement who you are, and grow as a player and learn every single day. And it can be difficult because it demands a lot of you.
“Certain times young players — and even older ones — find it a big transition, because you’re playing a certain way, and growing as a player, and you have a vision of what your career will look like. And then this player of such great stature arrives, and you’re still trying to be great, and he’s already great. And you find yourself asking, ‘OK, what are the steps to get there?’ So now do you learn by example from watching him? Do you learn by the way he treats his body? By the way he treats his business off the court? By his philanthropic path? So you just watch and you observe.”
Irving was entering his fourth season and already a two-time All-Star when James returned to Cleveland. Ingram, for his part, is in his third season, and Kuzma, Ball and Hart are all second-year players. And while the Lakers’ youngsters are regarded as promising, none is perceived to have Irving’s ceiling.
That’s not to say the so-called Baby Lakers don’t have grown-up goals of their own as individuals.
“I like to think to the highest, highest. I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” Ingram told ESPN. “I would say my career, career goal would be the best player in this league one day.”
“I mean, I always put the team first,” Ball told ESPN. “So championships are the first thing that comes to my mind. Other than that, All-Stars, MVPs, everybody wants to be the best.”
And Kuzma, as we learned on that night in Sacramento, has visions of consistently coming through in the clutch.
“That comes with being a great player,” he told ESPN. “Great players lead winning teams. They lead teams that win, whether that’s down the stretch in big games at crunch time, 10 seconds [left], whatever.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says teams usually figure themselves out instinctively.
“Players are smart. They want to win and they know where the ball should be,” Popovich said. “So, with our team, for instance, LaMarcus [Aldridge] and DeMar [DeRozan] and Rudy [Gay] are going to have the ball more than other people. It’s logical that every other team is going to do that also.
“The rub is having too many of them on the court at the same time for some teams. You have to figure out who is going to defer, who is going to be more of a role player and that’s where coaching comes in for every team to establish that. That depends on character and personalities.”
Of the Lakers’ young three, Kuzma has enjoyed the most benefit playing next to James. His stretch-4 skills and instinct to cut and find open seams off the ball have already translated to 15 20-plus-point games (including two 30-plus-point efforts) in 34 games alongside James. In 77 games last season, Kuzma notched 21 20-plus-point games and four 30-plus-point lines.
Meanwhile, Ball and Ingram have scored 20 or more with James in the lineup only five times combined (once for Ball, four times for Ingram). Points scored is less representative of Ball’s and Ingram’s contributions than it is for Kuzma, but it is clear that overlapping skill sets with James is causing more time to develop a lasting fit. With James dominating the ball at point forward, averaging 7.1 assists, Ingram’s average has decreased from 3.9 assists a season ago to 2.5 this season. Ball’s assists have also gone down, from 7.2 to 5 per game in subsequent seasons.
To try to maximize everyone’s potential, Walton has demanded his team play with pace — figuring the more possessions L.A. gets, the more chances all its key players can make an impact. And so far that has worked: The Lakers average 106.1 possessions per game, good for the third-best pace in the league.
Halfway through the season, their individual aspirations haven’t put them at odds with one another, or against James.
But that can change.
When James publicly expressed interest in how trading for Anthony Davis would improve the Lakers, the implication was that at least some of the young players would depart to facilitate that maneuver.
After the Lakers’ season was running relatively smoothly with a 2-5 record out of the gates, the Davis comment served as a reminder that there are championship-or-bust consequences for this team.
It’s that type of pressure Irving grew tired of.
“You also have to be aware of the expectations from the outside and how that can infiltrate your thinking,” Irving said. “Somehow it ends up where everybody wants play the blame game when things don’t go right. So it’s just a lot to get used to. It comes with a lot of pressures. I believe the very, very special ones, the unique ones, gladly take on that challenge, and they relish it. You can’t be afraid to challenge another great person. That’s how greatness is achieved.”
If Kuzma decides he truly deserves the ball with the game on the line, or Ingram decides he can’t realize his potential as the game’s best player playing alongside an all-time great, or Ball determines that his ceiling is stunted, a respectful order could be upended.
“It was a lot for me to figure out,” Irving says of playing with James. “The belief I have in myself goes way beyond anything that could deter me from what I want to accomplish. You can never ever, ever, ever, ever lose your sense of self while you are playing alongside a great player.”
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr negotiates a different challenge: keeping a team replete with alphas engaged during the regular season. Walton’s challenge? Whether the Lakers have a second alpha.
From all his time in the league, though, Kerr is well aware of the pitfalls when a young team searches for its identity.
“Guys are fighting for minutes, they’re fighting for money, they’re fighting for recognition, and once you get past all that and things sort of fall in place from the pecking-order standpoint, it becomes much more smooth,” Kerr said.
Walton says he hopes his team is eager enough to play basketball without politicking.
“There shouldn’t be a pecking order,” Walton said. “It should be playing and making the right plays, and that’s what we preach. Those guys are all very gifted players and there’s nights that they’re going to want to score and there’s certain nights one of them will be hot and other nights the other one will be hot. We have to just continue to just play with the main goal being the team.”
It’s a direction that Kuzma says he believes the Lakers are equipped to follow, even when James is out. This won’t be a “Lord of the Flies” power struggle.
“It’s always going to be a collective group,” Kuzma said. “Some nights, I have nights where I’m going. Some nights B.I. has it going. That’s just how basketball kind of works. So, I wouldn’t necessarily call me the second option, B.I. the second option. It’s got to be a collective effort.”
Besides, whatever pecking order is established now will surely have to be discovered all over again whether the Lakers swing a major trade or sign a marquee free agent this summer.
A second go-round at finding that second option.
ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan contributed to this report.