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FIFTY-FIVE MINUTES PRIOR TO TIP-OFF at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook work out together under the supervision of Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy.
At media day, James says of Westbrook, “We’ve been pretty much attached at the hip since we made the acquisition.” “We’ll keep doing what we’re doing. We’re going to be responsible to one other.”
He isn’t telling the truth. Handy takes them through their paces, just like he did during their first sweat session as partners in August at the Yeshiva University High School gym just north of Beverlywood, California.
James, dressed in a black durag and a gold necklace, puts the jumbo-sized plastic jug he’s carrying on a plush sideline seat while wearing his Lakers-branded shorts and cutoff T-shirt. For the 19-year NBA veteran, what started as a monthlong challenge with his wife, Savannah, to drink a gallon of water a day in pre-pandemic days has persisted.
As he proceeds through Handy’s skill-sharpening obstacle course over the next 30 minutes, James becomes drenched in sweat.
The duo executes a sequence of maneuvers, including a drive into a spin completed by a pull-up jumper; a crossover, two hesitation dribbles, a spin, then a reverse spin, and a baseline fadeaway.
After then, there were more combinations. Time and time again.
As the warm-up progresses, more Suns and Lakers players leave the floor to go to their pregame locker rooms, while more spectators enter the stadium and go down to the lower bowl to watch the warm-up.
This is their first peek at the new-look Lakers for the day — James and Westbrook opt out due to an unusual 3 p.m. tip time — and James obliges by amusing them.
James finishes a practice with a thunderous slam while the exercise asks for a layup at the conclusion.
When he drops the ball out of bounds while attempting a spin, he yells, “F—-!” before seeing a father and his kid out of the corner of his eye and making a shaka sign (hang loose) with his right hand and waving at them as a kind of mea culpa for his curse word.
James is abruptly upright, breaking out just a touch of the dance he showed off in a recent soft drink ad, with the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” blasting through the sound system while he is bent over and collecting his breath as he watches Westbrook take his turn.
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When the exercise is done, two supporters, one in an orange LeBron Cavs shirt and the other in a black LeBron Lakers jersey, start bowing in James’ direction like Wayne and Garth, saying, “We’re not worthy.”
While the Lakers are one of the most intriguing teams in the 2017 NBA season, are they deserving of the attention? Hollywood has produced a slew of celebrity-studded ensembles that failed at the box office, regardless of how impressive the names on the poster were.
The greatest difficulty for L.A. as it enters its fourth season with James, third with Anthony Davis, and first with Westbrook will be managing the expectations of a club that some have pegged to win the Western Conference with the spectacle of superstar stars all adjoined to a single squad. With just five players returning from the 2020 NBA championship team and nine newcomers to integrate, the Lakers will need time to gel, but they can’t avoid the reality that they’ll be scrutinized from the start.
The questions are as numerous as the celebrities. Will the parts fit together? Is there such a thing as too much personality? Isn’t it true that having so many veterans makes them vulnerable?
Fans may tune in to witness something spectacular. They may also find themselves unable to turn away if it seems to be something heinous.
“Those four lines are where the game is won,” James adds. “It’s not won on the bottom of the screen, in a newspaper, or on sports talk programs or anything like that. We come out and put in the time, labor, and effort to create our own story.”
IT’S GETTING CLOSE L.A.’s uncontested leader is directing traffic during a heated scrimmage to end the day’s practice a week into training camp.
“Russ! Come on, Russ, this side, “According to James.
James, Westbrook, Davis, Carmelo Anthony, and Malik Monk are up against a squad that includes Dwight Howard and a few of the camp’s younger players.
James scans the floor and keeps in his teammates’ ears as he rockets up the court on the right wing.
Westbrook finds Davis with a pass at the top of the key, then returns to get the ball after a dribble handoff. While all is going on, Monk cuts from the short corner to beyond the arc to receive a pass from Westbrook, and Davis takes up residence in the high post.
James says, “Throw it to him.” “Throw it at him!” says the narrator.
James continues his diagramming as soon as Monk bounces the entry pass into Davis.
“Cut it out, Russ!” James growls again, this time with a little more intensity in his voice.
Before James goes quiet and switches from coach on the court to player, Westbrook sprints from the top of the key to the right wing, replacing the position James was just in. Davis passes the ball to James as he runs from one wing to the other.
Davis puts up a screen for James to dribble back to the center of the floor, but James opts to drive left. Kent Bazemore guards him and holds him in check enough to prevent a baseline drive to the basket, but it’s not enough.
James fakes a spin move to the paint, picks up his dribble, and hits a teardrop fadeaway that falls into the net over Bazemore’s extended arm.
“LB, you’re an s—-! LB, you’re an s—-!” Davis shouts as they make their way back down the floor, clapping their hands.
Nothing about the squad seems old right now. It’s brand new. It’s brand new. It is occupied.
In discussing camp, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “Our energy has been off-the-charts terrific.” “Extremely aware of what we’re attempting to establish in terms of our system and culture.”
On the following play, though, Lakers training camp invite Trevelin Queen — all 6-foot-6 and 24 years old — cuts baseline and pushes off James as he pops back out to the wing, sending the 36-year-old flying to the floor.
“S—-, s—-, s—-, s—-, s—-, Oh, f—-ing f—-ing f—-ing f—-ing” As he turns over on the court, James yells.
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Queen had completed dunking the ball by the time James stands up, both arms extended wide, begging the assistant coaches who are watching the game to call a foul.
The reminder of the ambiguity surrounding this team’s outward ambition — general manager Rob Pelinka says he is “obsessed” with capturing the franchise’s 18th title, breaking a tie with the rival Boston Celtics for the most ever — is startling at that moment.
As good as they are, the margin for error narrows when you consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of possessions like that one that the Lakers’ aging roster will have to deal with over the course of an 82-game season before even reaching the playoffs.
James has been sidelined by major ailments in two of his last three seasons, missing 26 games in 2020-21 due to a high ankle sprain and 18 games in 2018-19 due to a strained groin.
Anyone on the Lakers, regardless of age, is vulnerable to a stroke of bad luck, such as being in the wrong position at the wrong moment when Solomon Hill dives for a steal.
Trevor Ariza, 36, injured his right ankle and Talon Horton-Tucker, 20, injured his right thumb before the Lakers’ six-game preseason schedule had even ended. Both players will miss the start of the season due to surgery.
The Lakers’ established core is a known quantity. Half of their roster has been selected for the All-Star game. Even if James and Westbrook put in the additional effort to develop chemistry, everything may fall apart if one of them suffers an injury at an inopportune moment. Even if the Lakers escape major injuries late in the season, who’s to say the team chemistry will develop fast enough for them to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June?
THEY ARE STANDING THERE.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is flanked by the three-time assists leader, who is a shoulder’s length away from the three-time blocks champion and the man whose name will undoubtedly be mentioned in every debate about the greatest basketball player of all time forevermore.
Melo. Dwight. AD. Russ. Rondo. Bron, too.
Anthony’s acquisition means that seven of the top ten scorers of all time have worn the purple and gold at some point in their careers, marking the newest and greatest accumulation of talent by a Los Angeles Lakers club long renowned for loading its squad with the finest the sport has to offer.
At the Lakers media day in El Segundo, California, the six of them gathered for a group picture.
J Alexander Diaz, who works with the Lakers as a creative director and arranged for the picture, says, “Thought it was extremely unusual to have a group shot with all those potential Hall of Famers at once.” “It was really a long shot, but I’m happy it worked out.”
If choreographing a picture is a long shot, imagine how difficult it is to win a championship.
The overwhelming assemblage of celebrities might have come with a flashing neon banner hovering behind them, proclaiming what everyone is thinking about them: This squad better win, while posing in front of a plain, white background.
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The previous two times the Lakers attempted something similar, it backfired. In 2003, Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on a squad that reached the NBA Finals but lost, and it was O’Neal and Bryant’s last season together. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined Bryant and Pau Gasol almost a decade later, in 2012, in what would become one of the most turbulent seasons in club history, as injuries and infighting destroyed that group.
Rajon Rondo is asked whether the Mamba/Diesel/Mailman/Glove version and L.A.’s current superteam have any similarities.
“Everyone’s getting on in years,” Rondo, 35, jokes. “We’ve got a few more people on the way. I believe they have four [Hall of Famers], whereas we have six… 512. I’m not sure… Although that was a long time ago, I believe the similarities are due to age.”
The Lakers are well aware that repeating past unsuccessful efforts at assembling a superteam would be difficult. But, when your planned path is unprecedented, what useful is anecdotal evidence? For example, James and Anthony are the only 19-year veterans to ever play together.
“Every season is unique. Each task is unique. Every year is unique. And I’m not able to draw on any prior experience with a team or a scenario “After a preseason defeat to the Golden State Warriors, James, Westbrook, and Davis play together for the first time. “This year, it’ll be about how much effort we can put in and how eager we are to improve.”
It takes a certain amount of arrogance to accept the challenge the Lakers are facing this season, but bold concepts, when implemented well, provide more pleasure than easy answers.
“We understand, I understand who’s on the team,” Anthony, who, like Westbrook, is the only member of the six-pack without a ring, adds. “Right now, we get it, OK, Bron, Melo, Russ, AD, Dwight… the list goes on and on.” We just want to get together. This is something we want to take pleasure in.
“When you’re out on the road trying to win something, it’s easy to lose sight of the pleasure. We want to have a good time on this trip, dude.”
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