The transition of power within the Lakers wasn’t going to happen in a couple of games in China or in a four-game preseason series with the Golden State Warriors.
If LeBron James is serious about the things he said this summer, if he wants the Lakers’ offense to go through new teammate Anthony Davis, it’s going to take actual game repetitions. It’s going to take the two being on the floor together during crunch time in important games. It’s going to take pick-and-rolls and post-ups against defenses designed to stop them.
It’s going to take work — and they know it. You could see it when the two players tried to navigate the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 112-102 loss to the Clippers on Tuesday.
There was James, at the top of the key, his eyes locked on Davis like a quarterback staring down his primary receiver, forcing a pass inside that Clippers forward Maurice Harkless easily tipped away. There was Davis going scoreless in the final quarter, taking as many shots (two) as Troy Daniels and Dwight Howard and one fewer than Avery Bradley and Quinn Cook.
They weren’t as much in sync as they were in each other’s way, two transcendent superstars trying to figure out the best way to play with the kind of teammate neither has had before.
“For us, we’re both aggressive. So sometimes, we kind of like miss each other. I missed him a couple times; he missed me,” Davis said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Davis is too talented, too skilled and too big to no-show a fourth quarter in a game that felt bigger than just the first of 82. And James? There’s probably not a more cerebral player in the league, someone who has always been more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan.
It’s a safe bet that the two players — both unselfish, both willing passers, both supremely talented — will get on the same page. This isn’t Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fighting over an imaginary torch. This is James and Davis working together on a much more peaceful transition of power.
“We do all know how good Anthony Davis is and if we are not playing through Anthony Davis while he is on the floor, then it makes no sense to have him on the floor, because he’s that great,” James said during the Lakers’ media day. “It doesn’t mean every time down we throw it to him, we throw it to him, we throw it to him. But we have the ability of doing it.”
In the opener Tuesday, especially late, looked forced. James turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, mistakes he owned postgame. But he seemed committed to his plan. Through three quarters he took four fewer shots than Davis, and when you factor in a 14-to-4 free-throw disparity in Davis’ favor, it was clear who the Lakers wanted putting the ball in the basket.
“Our offense is going to continue to get better and better in how we can get [Davis] in the proper position to be effective and how as a team, we can all be as effective as well,” James said after the game. “We showed tonight — there were times when we were great. And, there were times where we could be a lot better.”
He went on to point out the easiest way for things to get better, with James figuring out how to create for Davis as the Lakers’ de facto point guard while trying to find his own opportunities as a scorer.
He’s never been here before despite playing with great players in Miami and Cleveland. James has never been at a stage of his career with a natural successor sharing the locker room despite what he might have said to empower Kyrie Irving in Cleveland.
Davis and James were quick to point out problems can surface in a season opener. JaVale McGee said it would probably take five games or so for the Lakers to get on the same page.
This team doesn’t have much continuity, and if you don’t think that matters, you missed a Clippers lineup with Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell winning the game in the fourth quarter just like they did a year ago.
It’ll take time for James and Davis to find the right rhythm, time for James to learn how aggressive Davis wants to be late in games. In Davis’ time in New Orleans, he led the Pelicans in fourth-quarter shot attempts only twice.
You shouldn’t expect it to happen in Game 1 — and it didn’t. But there aren’t great reasons — at least not yet — to think this is anything more than just a necessary step in the process.
James is committed to having the Lakers lean on Davis. James is also used to every team he’s played for leaning on him. And there are plenty more pick-and-rolls, plenty of post-ups and plenty of fourth quarters to figure it out.