He’s not comfortable with the losing record they bring into the second part of the season. He’s not happy that the turbo-boost he’ll have to provide is needed so early in the season.
He doesn’t like it at all.
But he also loves it.
“I love being uncomfortable,” James said. “I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me and I love it.”
Their fate over the next few months will depend on James’ ability to push them and himself, and his teammates’ ability to match his intensity.
“We know we have who we view as the best player in the world on our team, but we also know that it takes a team to win,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “So we expect him to lead us and we expect the other guys on the team to continue to make plays and help us win games. This league is too tough to do it by yourself.”
Having missed the playoffs for the past five seasons, a losing record at the break isn’t an unusual state of affairs for the Lakers. It is, however, highly unusual for James.
“My level of intensity has to be [high], unfortunately for me because I don’t like to do it at such an early time,” James said. “I’m a little bit different.
“But it’s been activated. So look forward to see what we can do.”
The last time James played on a team that had a losing record at the All-Star break he was a 19-year-old rookie. Even starker is this: with the exception of one year since the 2008-09 season, all of James’ teams have had one of the five best records in the NBA heading into the break.
Making the playoffs has long been a formality for James. He used to say that he didn’t care which seed his team got heading into the postseason, but he said it knowing his team was one of the best around. He didn’t have to give his full effort until much later in the year. He’d get rest days as his team prepared for the playoffs.
Then, James would reach a new level.
Last season, the Cavaliers went 11-3 to finish the regular season. James scored more than 30 points in 12 of their 22 postseason games, including 51 points in a frustrating loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Two years ago, James scored more than 30 points in 14 of Cleveland’s 18 playoff games and notched three triple doubles, two of them in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
He has played in the NBA Finals in each of the past eight seasons.
But this year he suffered a left groin injury that caused him to miss a career-high 18 games. The Lakers went 6-12 in the games James missed after he was hurt Christmas Day in Oakland. They’re now in 10th place in the Western Conference and will need to win about two thirds of their remaining games to reach 45 wins.
The superhuman effort his teams often needed from him wasn’t necessary in February in the past.
Now it is.
“For me personally, I haven’t been in this position in a while because of my injury it’s kind of hit our team,” James said. “Obviously, we would have loved to have success when I was out, but we didn’t so this is where we is right now. I’m going to be a little bit different a little bit earlier than I would like to be in previous years.”
Whether the Lakers can do it won’t be solely on James. It will depend to some extent on whether or not his young teammates can rise to match his intensity level, and thrive in it along with him.
“LeBron is one of the few guys who has been through everything,” Josh Hart said. “So obviously he’s going to kind of put a lot on his shoulders. But it’s time for us to just grow up.”
Hart spent All-Star weekend in Napa, Calif., with his girlfriend and some friends. He tried his best to release his mind from thoughts of basketball or what task awaited him when the Lakers returned from the break. Like many of his teammates, he had no interest in looking backward over the rough stretch the Lakers endured as the break approached.
Maybe time heals all wounds. Maybe a week of lying on beaches or visiting vineyards is what does the trick. But on Wednesday morning when the Lakers got back at it with an organized, serious practice, their mentality clearly had shifted.
“The team is good right now,” Walton said. “It’s good to get away.”
Whatever distrust might have emerged before the All-Star break seemed to have dissipated with the common goal taking precedence.