And yet, after all of that, all Thursday night’s 128-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the season opener did was serve as evidence of one obvious truth: For the Lakers to get where so many expect them to be, there is plenty of work for James and Co. still to do.
“That’s all I’ve been preaching since the season started, since we got back to work,” James said after finishing with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes. “It’s going to take patience from our team, from all of us, just to figure out one another and figure out what we’re good at, figure out what we’re not good at.”
Thursday’s game showcased everything the Lakers were expected to be — both good and bad. After consistently focusing on pushing the ball during the preseason, Los Angeles killed Portland in fast-break points 34-12. But after entering training camp with only one legitimate big man, JaVale McGee, the Lakers were out-rebounded 54-46 (including 14-8 on the offensive glass), and Portland had a 21-10 edge in second-chance points. Meanwhile, a roster lacking in proven three-point shooters missed its first 15 attempts from behind the arc and finished 7 for 30 (23.3 percent).
“It’s still early,” James said. “We are literally less than a month in. It’s still early. We still have to go through some things. Go through some adversity, see how guys react to it, see what gets guys going. For me, it’s an everyday thing. Leadership is not a sometime thing. It’s an everyday thing. I do that every day.”
It’s going to take more than leadership from James to make these pieces fit together properly. Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 draft pick two years ago, was good defensively but had 16 quiet points in 27 minutes. He has been pointed to as a future star sidekick alongside James, but he missed all four of his three-point attempts — including a key one in the fourth quarter during Portland’s decisive run. He was benched shortly thereafter.
“I missed shots,” Ingram said. “I got to the spots I wanted to. I’ve just got to be better. I’ll look at this film and be better.”
Lonzo Ball, the second overall pick last year, had seven points, four rebounds and an assist in 19 minutes off the bench; he was tied with Lance Stephenson with a team-worst minus-15 differential. And as the Lakers made a push in the final few minutes, Ball and Ingram — players Los Angeles needs to grow into stars if this team is going to return to championship contention — were on the bench.
“We got down,” Coach Luke Walton said. “We needed to make some shots. We’ve seen what teams can do when LeBron is out there and shooting everywhere, so we were trying to put together guys that could maybe go on a quick little run for us. I trust all of our guys. … That was us just trying to find guys who could knock down shots late.”
It says a lot about what the Lakers have surrounded James with that not only did they avoid replicating the formula that proved so effective while building their roster this summer, but that both Ingram and Ball, at least on this night, weren’t part of it.
Now, this was a season opener with a mostly turned-over roster, and the Lakers should get better as they learn to play together. And while Ingram and Ball were unimpressive, Josh Hart was excellent off the bench, scoring 20 points in 27 minutes and playing strong defense. Walton wouldn’t commit to a lineup change postgame, but it doesn’t matter — Hart needs to be starting, and soon. Kyle Kuzma had his moments as a small-ball center off the bench, predictably getting attacked defensively but also going after bigger, slower defenders at the other end.
And while the Lakers don’t have many credible threats from three-point range, they also won’t be this bad on a regular basis. That they were playing Portland at Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers haven’t lost a home opener this century, and in front of a fan base mourning the death of longtime owner Paul Allen, certainly didn’t help matters, either.
But this also served as a reminder for James of what life is like in the Western Conference. Portland is a flawed team; outside of a terrific backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers don’t have much firepower or skill. What they do have is continuity and an identity. Portland knows who it is, and what it is about.
The Lakers — quite understandably — don’t check either of those boxes right now, and getting there will take time. But with an October schedule featuring games against the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs (twice), things could get worse before they get better.
“Not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said with a smile when asked how long it takes to build chemistry with a new team. “I always kind of compare it to instant oatmeal. It’s not that fast. It takes a while for the chemistry to get to where you close your eyes and you know exactly where your guys are.”
Twice in the final four minutes, James flung passes to where he expected a teammate to be — only for said teammate to be elsewhere and the ball to go out of bounds. As time passes, those moments will be far less memorable than the two baskets he scored in the opening four minutes — back-to-back tomahawk dunks that threatened to tear the rim off the backboard.
Put those moments together, though, and they perfectly encapsulate where James and his new teammates find themselves. Even with his 34th birthday approaching, James remains the NBA’s greatest player, capable of conjuring moments of brilliance that few others can replicate.
But for his Lakers to be able to do the same, they have plenty of work to do.
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