LeBron, Lakers cautiously optimistic about expectations

EL SEGUNDO, CA-Play time is over. The arduous workouts of training camp are now in the rear view mirror. The NBA season is officially here. And all eyes will be on Los Angeles. The hype around the Los Angeles Lakers signing NBA megastar LeBron James this summer has been over the top in many ways. But the for Lakers and their fans, it’s been a sensational marketing push for the franchise.

The Lakers, with 16 NBA banners hanging from the roof rafters at Staples Center, has been thirsty to hoist up No. 17 for quite some time. James is expected to be the one who helps them deliver it. But you might want to pump the brakes a little bit.

James, who signed a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers during the free agency period, has tried to put that fire out during the team’s media day and after training camp practices with his interactions with reporters. Right now, James is more concerned about being in sync with his new teammates more than anything else.

Los Angeles Lakers
Second-year point guard Lonzo Ball is expected to flourish with LeBron James now on the Lakers. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

“For myself, I just try to get a little bit of a rhythm,” James said at the end of practice on Friday, just ahead of the Lakers playing their first game of the 2018-2019 NBA season against the Denver Nuggets. “More importantly, for our continuity as a team…we’re a team that just got together. So, any little time that can get on the floor together, will help.”

Of course, as the team’s Alpha, James is always going to be on the lookout how and where he and his peers can improve.

“Seeing things that we can do very well, things that we don’t do so well so that we can work on the next day at practice,” James said. “Training camp is always the first day before the game of the regular season.”

When asked when he thought the team would fully jell together on the floor, James could not put a timetable on that topic.

“I wish,” said James.

Back in the day Kobe Bryant was driving force behind the wheel of the Lakers, considered to be the Mercedes Benz of all NBA franchises. Long before he became a coach, Luke Walton was a role player on a Phil Jackson-coached Lakers team that won back-to-back titles (2008-2009; 2009-2010) when Bryant was at the top of his game as NBA Finals MVP in both series.

Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers swingman Kyle Kuzma at the team’s media day on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

Interesting enough, James won the league’s MVP during those two seasons. When Bryant led the Lakers to those two titles, his helpmates, including Walton, were the Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher. Fast forward to 2018. James now wears the Purple and Gold instead of the Cleveland Cavaliers uniforms he used to put on. For the Lakers, it’s a great look. Now comes the expectations. There’s a lot of them.

The Lakers finished 11th in the Western Conference last season with a 35-47 record. With James in the lineup with second-year point guard Lonzo Ball, talented swingman Kyle Kuzma, the still-blossoming Brandon Ingram, and center JaVale McGee anchoring the paint, the Lakers are viewed as a team with the fourth-best chance of winning the NBA title, right behind the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and Houston Rockets.

That’s a big jump. But then again, when you consider what James has been able to do in the past (nine consecutive NBA Finals appearances) with lesser talent on the floor, those odds are quite reasonable and somewhat tempered. The Lakers were in a lot of close games last season without having the luxury of utilizing the services of James on a nightly basis. They’re also young. And long.

Los Angeles Lakers
Lance Stephenson fielding questions from the press during the Los Angeles Lakers Media Day on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman

This is something the Cavaliers lacked, even though James led them to four straight NBA Finals, including winning the championship in 2015. In Cleveland, James was surrounded by spot up shooters, players with very limited range when it comes down to versatility.

With the Lakers, James has inherited a squad built with the youth and ranging formula. What’s tellingly different is that Ball, Kuzma, Ingram, Josh Hart and newcomers Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, and Lance Stephenson, can all go to the rack in a split-second notice as well stopping and popping from the outside. However, since this is a remade roster with a lot of new faces, full synchronization with one another will probably take some time, Kuzma said.

“It’s a work in progress, coming into the gym every single day, learning each other games, trying to figure out what each other likes to do, what we can’t do, different strengths…it’s coming along,” said Kuzma.

Even though the Warriors are three-time champs, although the Rockets went out and retrieved Carmelo Anthony to side with Chris Paul and James Harden, and with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder lurking, it is not far-fetched to think that the Lakers have the potential of reaching the Western Conference Finals with an outside chance of making it to the NBA’s marquee stage.

That’s a long way to go. For now, getting through training camp and the preseason with collective cohesiveness and improved play is what James and the Lakers are thriving for.

“We haven’t taken a step back,” James said. “That’s a good sign.”

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