LeBron, LA need preseason time to mesh
LOS ANGELES – On Sunday we will find out just how interested, or uninterested, LeBron James is in the Lakers’ slate of preseason games. Itching to see the game’s biggest star play some meaningful minutes in purple and gold? Don’t hold your breath.
Or, at least, wait a couple of more weeks.
James not only doesn’t see much personal value in the collection of exhibition games that will warm things up before the 82 games that truly matter begin on Oct. 18, he also doesn’t have much appetite for talking about them for longer than an occasional snippet.
Head coach Luke Walton said James will have a role when the Lakers take on the Nuggets in San Diego on Sunday and would play “between one and 48 minutes.” Bank on it being closer to one than 48, much closer.
“Last year I pretty much didn’t play the whole preseason besides one half,” James told reporters this week. “So I have no idea. I don’t even know how many games we have. I’m not going to play that much minutes.”
James has had limited involvement in prior preseasons, so this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. In Cleveland last season, he took to the floor one time. A year before that, it was three brief appearances. This time, however, a drastically shortened schedule could be a mistake.
For this is a different situation from any James has faced before. Yes, he’s 33, and conserving as much energy as possible is practical. Yes, the campaign is painfully long and undeniably grueling.
But there is an altered narrative in James’ California adventure. This, as he, Walton and all the senior figures at the club never tire of stating, is a young team that needs time to grow.
It needs to grow … with James. LeBron isn’t going to learn anything new from a couple of preseason games, and he knows exactly how to get himself into the optimum shape. But his teammates need reps, the kind of reps that don’t just generate a nice sweat but actively replicate game scenarios, because playing with James is unlike any situation they have been exposed to before.
For many of them it will lead to extra freedom and more open looks, given the amount of attention James always commands. It will inevitably lead to a new level of expectations, especially those demanded by No. 23. Players such as Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma will need to be aware of James’ movements and nuances, given that a LeBron-led team has more of a flexible system than any other.
There are other reasons, too, that relate to the court in only a tangential way. No one is suggesting that James or Walton should make decisions based on what the fan base wants, though the fact remains that LeBron-mania is alive and well in Los Angeles right now.
If things start slowly once the season begins, it could all get a bit flat, especially if the fans lose belief early. L.A. isn’t exactly known for having the most patient of audiences. The core support, the kind of hard-core fans who will turn out even for a preseason game, need to be kept on their side.
No one is suggesting here that James plays all six preseason games. Or even logs particularly heavy minutes. However, some kind of legitimate involvement that involves more than a fleeting cameo and a watching eye from the sideline would send out the right kind of message.
Even if that doesn’t happen, let’s keep things in perspective. Even if he skipped the entire preseason, it wouldn’t be because he’s “gone Hollywood,” as one television loudmouth likes to suggest. It would be because he wants to preserve his energies for what could be a long season.
Except, it might not be anywhere near as long as he hopes if he and the team don’t quickly get on the same page.
“For myself, just try to get a little bit of rhythm, but more importantly for our continuity as a team,” James said. “We are a team that just got together. Any little bit of time we get on the floor together will help.”
It sounds like he gets it. Time to act upon it.