LeBron James became a Los Angeles Laker in the summer of 2018 without another superstar, surrounded by young teammates who he knew weren’t ready to compete for a championship. He talked constantly about having to be patient.
This month, James stood in the back of a hallway at Staples Center near the weight room players use before games and was asked if it’s nice to not have to be patient anymore.
“Yeah,” he said. “Because I was patient last year, and you see where it got me.”
This year is already different. The Lakers have a new coach in Frank Vogel, a new superstar in Anthony Davis and nine new faces on the roster. This season they aren’t a bunch of kids trying to figure out how to be NBA players, idolizing James and learning to play with him. Now, they are a seasoned group of veterans, with nine championships among them.
James doesn’t have to feign patience because the Lakers are clear about what they want. This season is about winning a championship.
“It’s pretty cool just to have all 15 guys just all have the same amount of urgency on what the task at hand is, which is winning a championship,” said center JaVale McGee, who won two championships with the Golden State Warriors. “It’s not to make the playoffs. It’s not to make it, win the first series in the playoffs. It’s to win a championship.”
That goal is a long way from where the Lakers have been lately. The franchise that has won 16 championships missed the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, which included the four worst seasons in team history. Last season the Lakers were not expected to be a title contender, but they were expected to make the playoffs.
While James tried his hand at patience, the Lakers struggled at first, then hit their stride. They were fourth in the Western Conference when James sustained a groin injury that kept him out for five weeks. Starters Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram missed the end of the season for health reasons — Ball with a severely sprained ankle and Ingram because of a blood clot that required surgery. The Lakers struggled to overcome the injuries.
At the trade deadline, the Lakers tried unsuccessfully to acquire Davis — someone James had said he wanted on his team. The fallout from the public nature of the Lakers’ offers crushed team chemistry and the lack of trust showed on the court.
In June, the Pelicans finally traded Davis to the Lakers. It took three first-round draft picks, the right to swap another, a second-round pick, and nearly every remaining player the Lakers had recently drafted. Only Kyle Kuzma remained.
Having been through two dramatic and disappointing seasons, Kuzma was cautious when discussing the Lakers’ aspirations.
“For the team, it’s to make the playoffs,” Kuzma said. “First step. That’s it. Can’t talk about nothing else, because this organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in years.”
But he’s got teammates who understand how quickly this can come together.
Danny Green spent only one season with the Toronto, sent there from the San Antonio Spurs when the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard in a trade. Their team changed even more at the trade deadline with the addition of Marc Gasol. Four months later, they beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
“We didn’t have a lot of time, but you can build that chemistry if you have the right pieces and the right veteran leadership to make something special happen,” Green said.
“Even though this is a new team of new young players and new old players, veterans, it’s very possible that we can build chemistry really fast and still be a special team and the last team standing.”
The opportunity to play for a championship drew many of role players to the Lakers. It’s a luxury some players spend their whole careers without.
“A lot of guys actually came to me, even LeBron, [and said,] ‘Can I join?’” Davis said.
This year is not about patience. The goal is much higher.