As the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Golden State Warriors this Christmas, all eyes will be on LeBron James, but he’ll be closely watching his teammates.
When LeBron James steps onto the Oracle Arena floor this Christmas, all the cameras and microphones will be focused on him, but the pressure will be on LeBron’s new Los Angeles Lakers teammates.
It’ll be the first time LeBron has been back for a game in Oakland since June 3, when his former team lost by 19 points in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. It was also five days before his final game as a Cleveland Cavalier.
It’s only been a few months since LeBron’s historic playoff run led a haphazard Cavs team out of the Eastern Conference, only to get swept by the Golden State Warriors. If he hadn’t made a decision to leave Cleveland by then, the experience was surely enough to nudge him closer to the west coast. Focus on J.R. Smith’s blunder at the end of Game 1 if you want, but that was only a brief moment in a completely lopsided series. LeBron was the best player on the floor (34 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game) for either team, but he didn’t have help.
Kevin Love was fine, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds per game in the series, but was always somewhat outmatched against the Warriors. Smith was the only other Cavs player to average more than eight points per game, and that was hardly enough to offset the lingering odor of his unprecedented brain fart.
Meanwhile, the Warriors had six different players average at least eight points per game. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were predictably spectacular, but they also had good, competent help. Seeing the writing on the wall, LeBron left, having accomplished more than could have been reasonably asked of him.
League-wide expectations aren’t high for the Lakers. No one in the right mind is picking them to knock off the Warriors, let alone compete with them in the playoffs. Everyone knows it’s about this coming summer when president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka will have cap space to lure an appropriate sidekick.
That doesn’t mean, however, that LeBron himself won’t be taking stock of how his current teammates perform against the Warriors during a nationally televised, Christmas Day showcase. Specifically Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — the young players who are under contract beyond this season and represent the Lakers’ greatest opportunity for growth.
Ball and Kuzma have already struck up noticeable chemistry with LeBron. Particularly Kuzma, who is the team’s second-leading scorer and is developing a nice two-man game with LeBron. No two Lakers spend more time on the court together. Of LeBron’s 35 minutes per game, only eight of them on average come without Kuzma also on the court.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
Their relationship started when LeBron was still in Cleveland, and Kuzma was the first Lakers player to reach out after LeBron signed his four-year, $153.3 million deal.
“He’s not allowing anybody to put a cap on him and saying he’s just a scorer, I think he wants to be more than that,” James said of Kuzma earlier this month. “He’s continuing to get better and better, not just offensively but defensively. He’s just playing all-round solid basketball.”
LeBron and Ball have logged the third-most minutes together of any Lakers duo, and LeBron seems to have a healthy respect for Ball’s game and basketball IQ.
“I think sometimes he doesn’t realize how great he is,” LeBron recently told reporters. “The things that he possesses out on the floor, and when Zo realizes how good he is out on the floor, it makes him a very dynamic player and it makes us even better.”
And then, perhaps the greatest compliment of all coming from him:
“We’re one and the same when it comes to our playmaking ability,” LeBron said. “We’re always looking for our teammates and that’s the greatest satisfaction we can have when we see our teammates score the ball.”
Ingram has had a harder time fitting in but is perhaps the most natural scorer of the group. Games like this are when he can more than make up for any regular-season struggles. If he shows out, LeBron will notice.
This is more than just a chance for LeBron to take a stand in new colors, it’s also an important data point for anyone involved in making personnel decisions for the Lakers. They’ll have max cap space to sign an All-Star next summer, but they could also seek to add one through the trade market (especially if they strike out like they did last summer after LeBron signed). Including at least one of its young core in a bountiful trade will be necessary, and the Lakers may be more reluctant to part with whoever matches up best with the Warriors.
LeBron has preached patience but his Lakers are within striking distance of the top of the Western Conference standings and have already supplemented its team with veteran Tyson Chandler and made a push to add Trevor Ariza. If LeBron smells blood, he pounces. He’s dropped hints that his patience may already be thinning.
While he’ll be motivated against his arch enemies in Oakland, he’ll also be aware of how his new teammates respond. LeBron’s Lakers are just getting started, but his teammates better watch the shot clock.