FORTYFIVE MINUTES before the tipoff at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook take the field for a joint training session, which Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy guides.
“We’ve been tied to the hip, pretty much since we made the purchase,” James said of Westbrook on Media Day. “We will continue to be that. We will hold each other accountable.”
He’s not lying. Just like at their first sweat session together as teammates in August at Yeshiva University High School’s gym just north of Beverlywood, California, Handy puts them through their paces.
James, wearing a black durag and a gold chain along with his Lakers-branded shorts and cropped T-shirt, places the jumbo size of plastic jug he holds on a sumptuous sideline seat. What began as a month-long challenge between him and his wife, Savannah, about drinking a gallon of water a day during pre-pandemic times continues for the 19-year-old NBA veteran.
Over the next 30 minutes, James is drenched in sweat as he walks through Handy’s obstacle course, sharpening his skills.
The pair pulls a series of pulls off: a drive into a spin closed by a pull-up jumper; a crossover, followed by two hesitant dribbles, a spin, then a reverse spin, and ending with a baseline fadeaway.
Combination after combination. Over and over again.
As training drags on, more and more Suns and Lakers players leave the field to go to their locker rooms, and more and more fans enter the arena and make their way down to the bottom bowl to watch the warm-up.
This is their glimpse of the new Lakers of the day — James and Westbrook choose not to play in the game in part due to an abnormal tip time at. 15-and James commits by entertaining.
When an exercise requires a line-up at the end, James ends with a violent thump.
When he loses the ball off the field and tries to perform a spin, he shouts: “F —!” frustrated before spotting a father and his son out of the corner of his eye and forming a shaka sign (hang loose) with his right hand, waving at them in recognition as a sort of mea culpa for his driver word.
While the Bee Gees ‘”Stayin’ Alive” pumps in over the sound system, while James bends over and catches his breath as he watches Westbrook take his turn, James suddenly stands upright and breaks out just a touch of the salsa he appeared in a recent soda advertising.
As James and Westbrook make their way from one side of the field to the other at the end of training, two fans – one in an orange LeBron Cavs jersey and the other in a black LeBron Lakers jersey – begin to bend over in James direction as Wayne and Garth say, “We are not worthy.”
Although the Lakers are on the shortlist for the most fascinating teams of the upcoming NBA season, are they worth the hype? Tinseltown has put together its fair share of celebrity-laden casts that flopped in the box office, no matter how impressive the names on the poster were.
As LA embarks on its fourth season with James, the third with Anthony Davis and the first with Westbrook managing the expectation of a team that some have slotted to get out of the Western Conference with the play with brand names all associated a single list will be its biggest challenge. With just five teamovers from the 2020 NBA title team and nine new faces to be integrated, time to assemble will be crucial, but these Lakers cannot escape the fact that they will be scrutinized right from the start.
The questions are as prevalent as the star forces. Will the pieces fit? How much personality is too much personality? Don’t all those veterans make them vulnerable?
Fans could tune in to see something amazing. They might also find themselves able to turn away if it looks like something awful.
“The game is won between the four lines,” James says. “And it’s not won on the motherboard, it’s not won in a newspaper, and it’s not won on sports talk shows or things like that. We go out and put in the time, we put the work in, we make our own narrative. “
IT IS ALMOST A week into training camp, and LA’s undisputed leader directs traffic during a lively scrimmage to end the day’s practice.
“Russ! This page, Russ, come on,” James says.
James, Westbrook, Davis, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk go up against a team with Dwight Howard and a handful of the younger players rounding out the camp list.
As James shoots up the field on the right wing, he monitors the floor and holds the teammates’ ears.
Westbrook finds Davis with a pass at the top of the key and then comes back to pick up the ball from a dribbling pass. While this action takes place, Monk cuts from the short corner to beyond the arc to get a feed from Westbrook, and Davis parks himself on the high post.
“Throw it to him,” James instructs. “Throw it to him!”
As soon as Monk jumps the access card to Davis, James resumes the chart.
“Cut, Russ!” James barks, with just a slightly more urgent voice.
Westbrook runs from the top of the key to the right wing and replaces the spot James just was at before James becomes quiet and turns the shift from coach on the floor back to being player. James sprints from one wing to the other and gets the ball from Davis.
Davis puts James on a screen that allows him to dribble back toward the center of the field, but James chooses to drive to the left. Kent Bazemore defends him and contains him enough to thwart a baseline right up to the rim, but that doesn’t matter.
James misses a spin pull to the paint, takes his dribble and shoots a tear over Bazemore’s outstretched arm falling through the net.
“God s —, LB! God s —, LB!” Davis shouts as they clap their hands on their way back down the floor.
At this moment, nothing about the team feels old. It is new. It’s fresh. It’s engaged.
“Our energy has been good from the charts,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said in his description of the camp. “Really aware of what we’re trying to install in terms of our system and our culture.”
On the next possession, however, the Lakers training camp invites Trevelin Queen — all resilient legs and long arms at 6-foot-6 and 24-year-olds baseline and pushes off James as he jumps back to the wing, sending the 36-year-old hurtling to the floor.
“Oh, s —. Oh, s —!” James bellows as he tumbles onto the pitch.
As James gets up, both arms spread wide, asking the assistant coaches who oversee the game to call a foul, and Queen is done pounding the ball.
And at the moment, the reminder of the uncertainty surrounding this team’s ambition on the outside – general manager Rob Pelinka says he is “obsessed” with winning the 18th championship in franchise history for breaking a tie with rival Boston Celtics for the most time ever – is striking.
Masterful as they may be, the margin of error falls when one considers hundreds, if not thousands, of possessions like the one that the Lakers’ roster must withstand during an 82-game season before the playoffs even begin.
James has had two of his last three seasons sabotaged by significant injuries and missed 26 games due to a high ankle sprain in 2020-21 and 18 games in 2018-19 due to a strained groin.
A splash of misfortune – like being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Solomon Hill jumps to steal – and everyone on the Lakers is susceptible, regardless of age.
Before the Lakers’ six-game pre-season slate was even finished, 36-year-old Trevor Ariza injured his right ankle and 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker injured his right thumb. Both required surgery and they will miss the start of the season.
Lakers known quantity is its established core. Half of their roster has made the All-Star team. But even if James and Westbrook put extra time together to build cohesion, anything can break with an untimely injury. And even if the Lakers avoid serious injuries late in the season, who’s going to say the team’s chemistry is fast enough for them to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June?
THERE THEY STAND.
This year’s three-time defensive player, next to the No. 10 scorer in NBA history, next to the guy with more triple-doubles than Oscar Robertson, flanks the three-time assist leader who is shoulder-length apart from the three -time blocks champ and the man whose name is likely to be included in any discussion about the greatest basketball player ever forever.
Dwight. Melo. Russ. Rondo. AD. And Bron.
It’s the latest and greatest collection of talent from a Los Angeles Lakers franchise that has long been known for filling its team with the best the sport has to offer; Anthony’s addition means that seven of the top 10 scorers ever slipped on purple and gold at some point in their careers.
The six of them are gathered for a group photo at Lakers Media Day in El Segundo, California.
“I think it was super rare to get a group photo with all the upcoming Hall of Famers at once,” says J Alexander Diaz, who works for the Lakers as creative director and took care of the portrait. “Actually, it seemed like a long shot, but glad it worked out.”
If the choreography of a photo can be considered a long shot, how scary is it then to capture a championship?
While posing in front of a simple, white background, the large collection of superstars might as well have come up with a flashing neon sign floating behind them, announcing what everyone thinks of them: This team wins better.
The last few times the Lakers tried something like that, it went wrong. Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2003, and while this team reached the NBA Finals and lost, it was the last season O’Neal and Bryant would play together. Nearly a decade later, in 2012, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined Bryant and Pau Gasol in what would become one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, as injuries and fights condemned that team.
Rajon Rondo is asked if he sees any parallels between the Mamba / Diesel / Mailman / Glove edition and LA’s new super team.
“Everyone is up there in age,” tweets the 35-year-old Rondo. “We have a couple more guys. I think they have four [Hall of Famers]; we reportedly have six … 5½. I do not know. … It was a while ago, but I think the similarities, of course, are age. “
The Lakers know it will not be easy to avoid previously unsuccessful attempts to put together a super team. But what good is anecdotal evidence when your intended course is unprecedented? James and Anthony, for example, are the first pair of 19-year-old veterans to have ever played together.
“Every season is different. Every challenge is different. Every year is different. And I can not base any previous team or any previous situation,” said James, after he, Westbrook and Davis play together for the first time in a pressure season loss. to the Golden State Warriors. “This year, it’s about how much work we can put in, how much desire we have to get better and better.”
It takes some hubris to willingly take on the challenge the Lakers face this season, but big ideas, when executed correctly, bring greater satisfaction than simple solutions do.
“We understand, I understand who’s on the team,” said Anthony, who along with Westbrook are the only ringless members of the six-pack. “Right now we understand, OK, Bron, Melo, Russ, AD, Dwight … it’s going on and on and on. We just want to get together. We want to enjoy this.
“When you’re on the go trying to go and win something, the fun can often be taken out of it. We’ll enjoy this journey, man.”