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Be Patient With the Lakers

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-10-19

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Will the Russell Westbrook experiment work? It might take time for the Lakers to find their rhythm.

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Panicked? Not Frank Vogel.

“At the end of the day,” said Vogel, “it’s really about the practice work we’re putting in.”

Concerned? Not LeBron James.

“I care more about the practice court,” said James, “than I care about preseason games.”

Bothered? After committing nine turnovers in a preseason loss to the Suns last week, Westbrook, smiling, said “ Good thing they don’t count .”

The NBA season opens on Tuesday, and the Lakers have all the momentum of the Titanic. L.A. completed a winless preseason last week. The last time the Lakers didn’t win a preseason game: 2012, when Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Now This Is Going To Be Fun , screamed the Sports Illustrated cover . And we all know how that turned out.

Does it matter? The Lakers don’t think so. They point to the paltry number of minutes (73) that James played in the preseason and how effective the team was (plus-17) in them. They cite the growing pains that come with nearly a dozen new bodies, pains worsened by injuries that have kept several out of the lineup. They note the developing chemistry between James and Westbrook , ball dominant players still feeling each other out.

“So far there’s been great willingness to play off of each other and to read each other,” Vogel said. “It’s really been pretty seamless in terms of who’s bringing it, who’s initiating, where guys are going to be.”

All fair. The Lakers shouldn’t be judge— can’t be judged—until well after Christmas. When James, Westbrook and Anthony Davis have time to play together. When Vogel settles on his rotation. When L.A.’s walking wounded—particularly Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker—rejoin the mix.

“It’s going to take a minute for us to become the team we know we’re capable of being,” said James. “It’s all about being patient with the process, understanding that we are going to have frustrating moments … that’s all part of [it]. Nothing is worth having if it’s not worth working for.”

Said Vogel, "It could take all year to really be at our best, and ideally, that's when we are at our best -- going into the playoffs.”

Still, the warning signs are just … there . Westbrook averaged 5.8 turnovers per game in the preseason. James averaged 3.7. The riddle of how to maximize Westbrook off the ball alongside James is still unsolved. Early on Westbrook has looked to be more of a playmaker, but his strongest moments have been when doing Westbrook-ey things, like relentlessly attacking the rim.

“It’s different,” Anthony said. “In OKC, it was his show and he was the anchor of that. And I think we did a great job putting this group together so that everybody could kind of be their own anchor to get what we were trying to accomplish … Russ has to be who Russ is.”

The defense looks, well, bad. The preseason numbers were ugly. The Lakers finished 22 nd in defensive efficiency. They surrendered a whopping 118.5 points per game. Opponents averaged 49 points in the paint (27 th ), scored 23.2 points off turnovers (26 th ), and shot 45.3% from the floor (20 th ). In the preseason finale against Sacramento, the Kings blitzed L.A. for 71 points in the first half. Avery Bradley, a defensive minded wing on the ’19-20 Lakers, was claimed this week on waivers . L.A. has been a top-three defense the last two seasons. Vogel, the architect of those defenses, will have his work cut out for him to keep them there.

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The reason to think none of it matters: James. In year-19, with his 37 th birthday just months away, James has shown few signs of slowing down . The extended offseason proved valuable for James. He stayed off the basketball court for two months, giving the ankle injury that plagued him during the second half of last season time to heal. He pushed for the Westbrook trade , believing Westbrook’s hyper competitiveness is what this team needed. He shrugged off a suggestion that his minutes could be monitored this season, saying “I feel worse when I play low minutes.”

“It’s a completely clean slate,” James said. “Last year was such a fast twitch season for us, coming off the bubble. Injuries derailed anything that we wanted to do. It’s a great opportunity for us to rinse our hands and have a clean slate and get ready to start building. Hopefully build something special.”

Will they? Betting against James has often proved foolish. Everywhere he goes, he wins. In Miami. In Cleveland. In Los Angeles, where a year ago, in the quiet of the NBA bubble, James powered the Lakers to a Celtics-tying 17 th championship . That team had a bunch of new players. This one has more.

James, Lakers faithful believes, will figure out the Rubik’s cube that is Westbrook’s fit. James will glue the defense together. James will keep this patchwork team afloat until Ariza, Horton-Tucker and the handful of other nicked up Lakers come back.

James will weather the storm in November.

And hoist the championship trophy in June.

Perhaps he will. But few teams in the NBA have as much potential variance as the Lakers. Oddsmakers rank the Lakers just behind the Nets as championship favorites , while FiveThirtyEight gives L.A. a 48% chance just to make the playoffs. James, Davis and Westbrook could become the NBA’s next dominant trio. Or poor chemistry could turn this season into a disaster.

Either way … this is going to be fun.

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