LeBron James sat in front of reporters in Los Angeles less than a month ago and said that his definition of success, and therefore the Lakers’ new definition of success, isn’t necessarily measured by championships.
The man who has played in eight consecutive NBA Finals, a man with three championship rings, preached patience. Wait for us. Relax.
“There’s going to be good times. There’s going to be bad times,” he said, tempering expectations for his first season in Los Angeles. “That’s what happens when a team is new.”
But less than nine minutes into his official debut with the Lakers on Thursday night, it was clear that this whole “patience” thing is just not practical. He’s too good and too exciting for results not to matter immediately.
The Lakers and James can try to settle us all down — and they’re not wrong. It’s foolish to expect the Lakers on Oct. 18 to be a finished product, that they won’t need more time to learn one another’s tendencies, their preferences, their style.
You could see all of that in the Lakers’ 128-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in their season opener. But if you’ve followed James, you know this doesn’t mean much.
A team with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade lost eight of its first 17 games when the Miami Heat added James — and that group eventually reached the Finals. A Cleveland Cavaliers team with Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and James lost seven of its first 12.
It’s a fate that everyone, James included, seems ready for, part of the price of adding such a transformational player to your team.
“We’ve talked about that patience,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said before Thursday’s game. “We talk about where we need to get and how we’re going to get there. He’s aware that it takes time.”
But from the moment that James scored his first four points as a Laker — consecutive violent one-handed dunks sending the crowd into euphoria — all logic and reason was just as forcefully tossed aside.
The LeBron James experience — the Lakers’ first real taste of it — made it seem like no challenge would be too great for him and his team.
James played the game’s first 8 minutes 33 seconds — his first shift with the team. He made all but one of his six shots. He grabbed three rebounds, dished out an assist and pushed the Lakers out to a five-point lead before checking out. He finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
But the ferocity of the dunks, the way James jumped at the first pump fake he saw, the way he got bailed out by a foul when he simply got too excited and fell down with the ball, it all speaks to the idea that maybe James isn’t that patient, either.
He was hyped.
There were more tender moments than his early assaults on the rim.
During one free-throw break, James grabbed second-year guard Josh Hart by the waist and pulled him in to offer instructions. And early in the second half — a stretch where he took a more passive approach to help get his supporting cast, namely Brandon Ingram, going — James stayed in the backcourt, putting a finger up in the air after a Kyle Kuzma breakaway dunk.
And when things went bad — like when Kuzma cut to the rim instead of staying behind the three-point line on a play where James’ behind-the-back pass ended up in the seats — James didn’t outwardly fume.
Lakers forward LeBron James huddles with his teammates during the season opener against the Trail Blazers.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward LeBron James drives to the basket against Trail Blazers center Zach Collins in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lebron James celebrates a basket by Lakers guard Lonzo Ball against the Trail Blazers in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LeBron James heads to the locker room at halftime.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LeBron James goes up for a slam dunk in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times /)
Lakers forward LeBron James celebrates a dunk against the Trail Blazers in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LeBron James defends against Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward LeBron James looks for an open teammate in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma drives the basket against a pair of Trail Blazers defenders in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers guard Rajon Rondo drives to the basket against Trail Blazers guard Nik Stauskas in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers star LeBron James prepares to take the floor for the season opening game against the Trail Blazers.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers star LeBron James arrives for the season opening game against the Trail Blazers.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Some of the Lakers’ predicted shortcomings — a painfully obvious lack of three-point shooting ability, issues with opposing big men, inconsistent defense — were on full display, but part of the journey of a season is finding out how a team can mask its shortcomings.
“It’s all about the process,” James calmly explained earlier in the day. “It’s not the end of the world on day one.”
It’s not — not even a little. There are 81 more games to be played, 81 more chances for James’ greatness to lead the Lakers to victory.
But watching James hit the break, the ball in his hand, planting his left foot to take off for two forceful points, watching him make all the plays on both ends, it’s easy to get talked out of the reasonable patience this Lakers team will require.
The first chapter of James’ time as a Laker would’ve been so much cleaner, so easier to digest, had the Lakers won. But they didn’t.
In his first game as a pro, James lost. In his first game with the Big Three in Miami, he lost. And in the first game of his homecoming back in Cleveland, he lost.
Those stories all turned out just fine — and this one will too. But with someone as great as James, it’s a fool’s errand to ask for patience.
“I’m glad that he’s on our team,” Walton said after the loss.
Because he’s on Walton’s team, no one will be able to be that patient. This Lakers team is built to win, built to make the playoffs, built to be a factor in the end.
It’d be impossible for a team with LeBron James not to be.