Here’s what LeBron James had to say after his first taste of loss with the Lakers, a 128-119 season opener against the Blazers:
“Um, not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said when asked how long it will take for the Lakers’ chemistry to develop. “I always kind of compare it to like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast. It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are.”
That last bit can be taken very literally. James, who had six total turnovers, could be seen throwing passes that were hilarious in a sense different from the traditional sense that LeBron passes are hilarious. One of them was a crunch-time no-look bounce pass he lashed directly into the wire photographers, with no reasonable expectation that there would be a Laker there to receive it.
This is bad, but really, this is good. Even a basketball mind like James, the de facto coach of all his teams and a cosmic-brained basketball visionary, will take a while to suss out how these odd pieces fit together. Growing pains! What a treat it is to see a GOAT in his late prime have to go through them—and not just with another generically ass Cavs squad. These Lakers have talent, lots of it, but of a flavor different from the one he’s gotten accustomed to. This season brings a welcome disruption to the familiar pattern of LeBron Plus Shooters Wins The East. Suddenly every single one of those variables is being tweaked.
Now out West, the playoffs are no longer a given for him, and every routine in-conference game will make the Lakers sweat. Now James is leading a team where, say, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must be relied upon for crucial floor-spacing. Gone is the LeBron steamroller drive-and-kick into one of many wonderfully fruitful shooting pockets: Last night the Lakers didn’t sink their first shot from behind the arc until 2:22 in the third quarter. For LeBron, Kyle Korver tearing around a screen is a tissue-thin memory. Even a Supreme-tatted J.R. would be a welcome salve in some of these lineups. (Fine, maybe not.)
The basketball is no longer going to move at James’s fussy conductor’s tempo. The defining experience of watching a LeBron team—the king striding up the floor, picking at the seams of his jersey, surveying all his options, motioning over here, barking marching orders there, getting everything just so—will be a rarer sight. Head coach Luke Walton wants to ramp up the pace, which no Bron team has ever done, so as to let the passing geniuses on the roster profit from all the fresh legs, and also JaVale McGee’s legs. Against a Blazers team that was also happy to push the tempo, the Lakers piled up 34 points on the fast break, 70 in the paint. Spacing be damned, these LeBron and Rajon Rondo lineups should be a playmaking orgy, as both crack through defenses, attack closeouts, hurl hail-mary outlet passes, and generally combine for some batshit hockey assists. It’ll be cool to watch them cook, and cooler still if Lonzo Ball manages to get himself right and outcompete Rondo for all those minutes.
If the complaint against the NBA in general is stylistic sameness (airily spaced-out squads that bomb threes), and the complaint against LeBron in particular that he forces everyone to bend to his will (just spread the floor and be ready for the ball to zap into your hands), there could have been no more satisfying answer to that than these possibly dysfunctional, probably very-differently-composed-in-February Los Angeles Lakers.