There have been a lot of rumors over the years about just what it takes to play with a guy like LeBron James. Landing on the same roster as the best player in the world can give guys an opportunity to be on the stage with the brightest lights for the first time in their careers. When you play with James you find yourself in more nationally televised games and more importantly, you make it to the playoffs. But the glare of the spotlight can sometimes put too much pressure on a player to perform with the three-time champion and three-time Finals MVP. Being LeBron’s teammate isn’t all conference finals and glamor—it’s creating your own success while you’re expected to help him create his too.
The Lakers have opened to a tumultuous start going 5-6 during the first three weeks of the season, James’ worst start since his rookie year when Cleveland started out 2-7. While the now infamous ‘young core’ (anyone using this term in the media is my new favorite drinking game) is working out their own kinks, LeBron seems dangerously uninterested and detached from the players who made purple and gold an appealing destination to begin with. The young guys are visibly improving upon their own games from last year; it can’t be said with confidence that this is because of the leadership LeBron brings to the table. Many have equated these observations to LeBron resting on the court and only waiting until the last moment to show us why he’s in the GOAT conversation. But it’s also left some wondering, “Does anyone actually want to play with LeBron?”
A rough start is nothing new to the 15-year veteran. Besides his aforementioned rookie year, both times James has changed cities, the team has struggled to find its rhythm in the early part of the season. The 2010-11 Heat went 5-4 to start and the 2014-15 Cavaliers started 5-7, and both bounced back to be 52-plus-win teams. It’s possible that 5-6 is exactly what we should expect him to be producing with a team composed of players of this experience as he makes his first dabble in the Western Conference.
Not all of the rough starts had a happy ending on LeBron’s teams. It is widely accepted that LeBron was directly involved in the firing of David Blatt, the coach of the Cavs at the time when James made his prodigal son return. Even without confirmation, it was visible just on the bench that LeBron was making decisions with the front office backing him up. Blatt was gone by January. It was revealed later that while LeBron was in Miami he had approached Pat Riley with the question, “Do you ever have the itch [to coach again]?” When Riley said no, LeBron decided to take his talents away from south beach and back to Cleveland.
So as we sit today, it appears the Lakers would have roughly three options. One, they wait for the young core to step up…I’ll hold for the laugh. The optimistic take by far, but I think it’s safe to say that James did not come to Los Angeles to trust the process, no matter how talented the group of Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram come to be. This leads to option two, fire Luke Walton.
This was the go-to response of almost everyone in the media this week, some having brought it up even before the Lakers played a single game. My personal opinion is that Walton should already have his bags packed and a warm vacation picked out knowing James’ history, but Magic Johnson is telling us otherwise. After their embarrassing loss to a Raptors team sans-Kawhi Leonard, rumors of Walton’s departure started flurrying more than ever and after a reportedly heated conversation between the two, Johnson confirmed Walton is not being kicked out the door. Yet. I can’t imagine Walton finishing out the season, but it seems his job is safe for the time being. This leads us to the final option and most obvious: bring in the talent.
In the recently created, player-empowerment era, Kawhi Leonard was arguably the first after LeBron to dictate where he was going to play after his messy break up with the Spurs this summer. Leonard expressed that the Lakers and Clippers were top on his list, as he grew up fewer than 70 miles away from the Staples Center. But Kawhi didn’t get to go to a team on his list—also a drawback in the player-empowerment era. He ended up on the Raptors, and in August, it only seemed like a matter of time before he was on the first flight to LA as soon as trade negotiations were available. But then Kawhi became the ‘fun guy’ and led Toronto to an 11-1 start with one of the strongest benches in the league, despite already resting for four games. Even this early into the season, the night and day difference between LA and Toronto led me to believe Kawhi might find a home in Toronto, but more so it will be his team, something it will never be in LA with LeBron.
It wasn’t that long ago we were all but assuming another All-Star would be signing with the Lakers and coming home. Paul George being traded to OKC prior to the 2017-18 season seemed like a layover for the former Pacer, Magic Johnson even racking up more tampering points talking about it. But this summer, without even taking a meeting with Lakers management and with Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook close behind him, George announced he would be remain in OKC and be “here to stay.”
The Jimmy Butler saga has finally concluded with his trade to the Philadelphia 76ers, but it is notable that when Jimmy discussed his preferred destinations, the Lakers were not included on that list. Jimmy’s time with the Wolves is done, but like every other player who’s made their bed, why don’t the Lakers have anyone who wants to lie in theirs?
When it was announced that Tyson Chandler would be receiving a buyout from the Suns and signing with the Lakers, I may have been a bit sarcastic about the help he would provide. A 36-year old veteran who’s limited to 15-20 minutes a game; how is that the answer to a defensive mess? But in a league where no team is playing defense, I underestimated the effect Chandler would have on this…young core. Chandler only had two points in his Lakers debut, but his nine boards and bone-shattering screens (sorry KAT) are what LA actually needed and it secured the win over Minnesota. But as Brian Windhorst put it simply on the Hoop Collective podcast this week, “Is Chandler enough to fix the deficiency Lakers management created?”
Stars don’t seem to be jumping at the chance to play with LeBron in Los Angeles, something I didn’t predict—especially in this league where players seem to move more and a championship isn’t the only source of satisfaction. The list is getting shorter of players the team could potentially target, but 2019 free agency is getting closer and closer each day. The question now, is this a time for patience or is this a time for action? To my great dismay, there seems to be one particular player whose name was thrown around quite a bit in the summer but traction has since subsided. An All-Star and First Team All-NBA player who’s from California, and possibly has a reason to look elsewhere for NBA success—Damian Lillard.
“Blow up the Blazers backcourt” is now as familiar phrase to me as “Hey, what’s up?” It’s what I expect most people to greet me with when I tell them the hardest job I’ll ever have is being a Blazers fan. Rumors of either CJ or Dame leaving seem to get floated around more than other teams in similar situations, but have only ramped up after getting swept by the Pelicans last year in the playoffs.
Now, there’s one more variable in the equation: the power of persuasion by LeBron and company (and the rest of sports media). When the Lakers were originally shopping for stars in the summer, Damian’s name was quickly brought up. As always, he reiterated his love for Portland and said he was “typically a happy camper.” But in a Twitter-world where he could have easily ignored those tweets, his response seemed a little out of place. Bill Simmons of The Ringer predicted that the low win-count in Vegas for Portland—42 games—is because the team may attempt to trade him after the mid-season deadline. The expected output of any Laker trade is at least part of the younger group; Simmons anticipates Lonzo Ball being included, as well as an expiring contract like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Brian Windhorst also stated KCP would be in any package the Lakers would present to teams).
The idea of seeing Dame in a Lakers jersey makes me want to upchuck, but as I try to be as objective as I can, I think in some ways he might be one of the best teammates LeBron could have. Lillard knows how to be the clutch shot guy, but he also recognizes when his team or teammate is doing well and can instantly play unselfishly and off the ball. When you go to play with LeBron, you adapt to his game, he does not adapt to yours. It does help that James has already expressed interest in playing with Lillard, but that won’t seal the deal. Brendan Haywood, a former Cavalier with James in 2014-15, was asked about what it takes to be LeBron’s teammate. He explained when LeBron came back, telling Dion Waiters that he wasn’t going to have the ball in has as much and Dion wasn’t having that, resulting in his trade very early that year. Haywood goes on, “LeBron’s not gonna expect you to get it overnight. But you have to be willing. […] And the best example of that is Dwyane Wade.” Wade adapted to his role with James and that allowed himself to take of the alpha title. Haywood ends with, “Be a Dwyane, not a Dion.”
The other backcourt at risk of being blown up is the Washington Wizards, who look abysmal this season. The only player who rests more than LeBron James on the court is John Wall—and it’s not because he’s preserving energy. Bradley Beal and Wall have long not got along and if it wasn’t obvious before, it is now. The Wizards are sitting at 2-9, the second-lowest record behind the Cavs. If their season continues on this path, I’m not sure the Lakers will even want Wall or Beal by the end of it. But for now, it takes the spotlight off Dame while he quietly brings the team to a very comfortable top-three spot in the West.
This year is one of the most unsure I’ve felt this early into a season. With Paul Allen’s passing, Terry Stotts on Year 7, and only a few first- and second-round exits to show for Dame and CJ, it scares me that it’s our time to make a move. Not knowing what that move will be will leave me nervous until it happens. But it’s coming. Damian was truthful when he said he was typically a happy camper—he’s the guy who will be happy anywhere doing whatever is needed of him. And that’s what makes me most scared of all.