LeBron James Has Plenty of Patience. For Now.
Arjun | 5 months ago
LeBron James and the Lakers are still building their chemistry.
PORTLAND, Ore. — LeBron James spent much of his first game with the Los Angeles Lakers pointing. He pointed at teammates. He pointed at spots on the floor where he wanted his teammates to move. He pointed at opposing players whom he wanted his teammates to defend. He pointed at the ball so that his teammates would pass it to him.
After storming to the basket for a dunk, he even pointed to the crowd — with both fingers, smoking-pistols style. Just to mix things up.
As much as James dribbles and shoots and soars and scores, he is a constant communicator. His approach is not always gentle or nuanced. He points with authority.
But even by his own standards, built up over the course of 14-plus seasons, James is probably doing more communicating than usual right now, because the Lakers are new to him, and he is new to them. So he points during games, and he talks about patience between them.
“That’s all I’ve been preaching since the season started,” he said, “since we got back to work, that it was going to take patience from our team, from all of us, just to figure out one another, to figure out what we’re good at, to figure out what we’re not so good at and get better at it.”
There is ample room for improvement from the LeBron-era Lakers, who were christened with a 128-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. The Lakers will return to work on Saturday night in their home opener against the Houston Rockets, who merely won a franchise-record 65 games last season. Welcome to the Western Conference, LeBron.
LeBron James pointed the way in the first half.
James has appeared in eight consecutive N.B.A. finals, first with the Miami Heat, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the dynamic is different for him this season. The Lakers are unlikely contenders, not yet anyway. Even making the playoffs is no sure thing.
The Lakers have lots of young talent (Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball), along with a hodgepodge of veterans on one-year contracts, but their defense and outside shooting are suspect. Consider: They missed their first 15 3-pointers against Portland.
For his part, Coach Luke Walton acknowledged that the Lakers needed work, because of course they do, but he was noticeably upbeat at his news conference.
All those errant 3-pointers? “They were good shots,” he said.
How about the team’s style of play? “I liked our pace,” he said.
What did he think of James’s first game? “I’m glad he’s on our team,” he said.
In fairness, it is too early to make judgments about the season, but there is a reason James has been using the p word — patience — so much in recent weeks. He is guarding against expectations. He understands the challenges ahead. It is also not the worst strategy to inoculate the team’s more inexperienced players against undue pressure.
After Thursday’s loss, he was asked about chemistry — specifically, how long it would take for this group to coalesce. He was noncommital with his response.
“Not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I always kind of compare it to instant oatmeal. It’s not that fast. It takes awhile for the chemistry to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are. So that’s what we’re going to work toward.”
James cited several sequences from the game where that lack of chemistry — that absence of knowing where his guys were — was evident to him. There was one play, he said, when he expected Kuzma to pop off a screen, but Kuzma rolled to the basket instead and James threw the ball out of bounds. There was another play, he said, when Rajon Rondo was driving baseline and threw a pass to James that JaVale McGee thought was intended for him. Another miscommunication. Another turnover. There was a lot of that.
“We’re literally less than a month in,” James said, referring to the start of training camp in September. “So it’s still early. We’ve got to go through some things, go through some adversity, see how guys react to it, and see what gets guys going. For me, it’s an everyday thing. Leadership is not a sometimes thing. It’s an everyday thing.”
It is worth noting that each time James has gone to a new team — four times in all, starting with the Cavaliers straight out of high school — that team has endured growing pains. Even when he joined the supercharged Heat as a free agent in 2010, they lost eight of their first 17 games and had a five-game losing streak in March. They wound up reaching the finals. Later, when James returned to the Cavaliers in 2014, they lost seven of their first 12. They reached the finals, too.
After Game 1 with the Lakers, James was asked if he would be forgiving with the team’s younger players: Would he give them a pass early on? It was a fair question. After all, of all the adjectives used to describe him over the years, patient — no matter how many times he wants to use the word — is not the first that comes to mind.
It is true, James said, that many of his teammates simply need more experience, and that experience comes only with time.
“But you don’t get a pass for not practicing excellence every day,” he said, “and trying to be great every day.”
James will make those judgments, which is one of the reasons the Lakers are so intriguing. No one knows quite what to expect from them. No one, not even James.