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Stephen Curry and LeBron James are headed in different directions

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry each have four NBA championships, but only Curry has a realistic shot at chasing the 2023 title. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry barely had a chance to slide on his fourth championship ring before the Golden State Warriors made it clear that they’re serious about chasing their fifth title since the 2014-15 season.

The defending champions welcomed LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers to Chase Center for opening night Tuesday, shaking off some early nerves to build a 27-point second-half lead and cruising to a 123-109 victory. This wasn’t a fair fight: Golden State was working through its first-world problems, while Los Angeles already was coming to grips with its fatal flaws.

Indeed, the gap in playable talent between the Pacific Division rivals was so vast that Warriors Coach Steve Kerr paced his stars by using an 11-man rotation while his Lakers counterpart, Darvin Ham, wasn’t even willing to reveal his starting lineup before the game. Kerr had his hands full finding time for everyone who deserved it; Ham simply had too many holes to fill.

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For James, who boasts four rings like Curry, it must have been a frustrating reality check. The Warriors began their title defense without skipping a beat, while his new-look Lakers bore many of the same old problems — poor outside shooting, shaky chemistry and inconsistent defensive effort — that haunted them last season. While Curry should have a credible shot to join Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as a single-team, five-ring superstar, James’s own drive for five has stalled with the Lakers treading water well below the contender class.

The 37-year-old James and 34-year-old Curry go way back. They were famously born in the same Akron hospital and faced off in four straight Finals from 2015 to 2018. They endorse rival sneaker brands and have been engaged in a decade-long battle for all-star votes, jersey sales and television ratings.

James welcomed Curry to the NBA by beating him in their first three meetings, and he delivered the most painful defeat of Curry’s career in the 2016 Finals. More recently, the Lakers managed to beat the Warriors in the 2021 play-in tournament. James has more career points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks than the Warriors guard, and he will soon pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. In historical conversations, James is far more likely to be compared to Michael Jordan than to Curry.

But history will be of little help to James as he embarks on his 20th season, which opened on an ominous note. History won’t help him suddenly find a way to make it work with Russell Westbrook. History won’t keep Anthony Davis healthy and engaged. And history won’t convert James’s kick-out passes into three-pointers.

“To be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting,” a candid James said after the Lakers missed 18 of their first 21 three-point attempts and finished 10 for 40 from deep against the Warriors. “That’s just the truth of the matter. It’s not like we’re sitting there with a lot of lasers on our team.”

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The Warriors, by contrast, have lasers galore, thanks to Curry, Klay Thompson and reserve guard Jordan Poole, who led a team that made the third-most three-pointers in the NBA last season. The splashy trio weren’t hitting on all cylinders against the Lakers, but they put on a good show nonetheless. Curry led all scorers with 33 points, and he iced the game by scoring nine points in 46 seconds during a rally-squelching burst.

That fourth-quarter kick, which included a corner three-pointer, a pretty finger roll past Davis and a four-point play from the top of the key, capped a jubilant evening.

“I’ve never had a bad ring night,” quipped Kerr, who won five titles as a player and has added four more as a coach. “They’re all awesome.”

Before the game, the Warriors lined up their championship trophies in an imposing row, with the 2022 edition placed on a white table near center court. After each player received his gaudy, 16-carat diamond ring, the Warriors unveiled their latest championship banner and snapped a group photograph.

Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green donned gold-accented sneakers for the celebration as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saluted their staying power.

“It takes more than skilled players to win championships,” Silver said. “It takes resiliency. Resiliency is what defines these Golden State Warriors.”

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The Warriors didn’t splinter after injury-plagued seasons ended with lottery trips in 2020 and 2021, and they showed no obvious fissures Tuesday following Green’s mid-practice punch of Poole during the preseason. Those down years helped Golden State reload with young talent; recent draft picks Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody should see major playing time this season. Kerr likened his team’s depth to the 2014-15 Warriors, who adopted the “Strength in Numbers” motto en route to Curry’s first title.

In desperate need of a similar infusion, the Lakers have been stuck in gridlock since they bet the house on their 2021 trade for Westbrook. There have been some modest wins on the edges over the past two offseasons — Malik Monk (now with the Sacramento Kings), Austin Reaves and, possibly, Matt Ryan — but no game-changers. The cast around James and Davis has cycled at an alarming and self-defeating rate, with newcomers Lonnie Walker IV and Patrick Beverley thrust into starting roles on opening night.

“It’s a team that’s coming together for the first time,” James said. “A lot of new pieces. A whole new system and coaching staff.”

The popular and overdue solution is to trade Westbrook, but there isn’t a silver-bullet deal capable of boosting these Lakers back into the Western Conference’s top tier. James surely understood this predicament when he inked a two-year contract extension in August, though it’s always more difficult to cope with losing once the day-to-day reality of an 82-game season kicks in.

James has been a master of reinvention throughout his career, bouncing from Cleveland to Miami and back before leading the Lakers to the 2020 title. The cruel truth: James needs a new story, but he can’t easily write his way out of this one. Meanwhile, Curry glides along in the only NBA home he has ever known, looking as balanced and determined as ever.

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