LeBron James exercising patience with young Lakers during rough start, but what happens when it runs out?
MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday night, 15 years to the day since LeBron James played the first game of his NBA career, LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers dropped yet another close game. All five of their losses this season have been by 10 points or fewer; Monday’s 124-120 loss was at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves and a scorching hot Jimmy Butler, who hit five 3-pointers in the back-and-forth fourth quarter.
Patience, Lakers coach Luke Walton tells us.
This loss dropped the Lakers to 2-5, tied for 11th place in the Western Conference. It marked the worst beginning to a season for a LeBron James team since his rookie year.
Chemistry takes time, LeBron tells us.
When LeBron was an 18-year-old phenom playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, his NBA career started on a bumpy road. The Cavs lost their first five games with LeBron, eventually getting off to a 4-15 start. That was one of two seasons in LeBron’s career in which he missed the playoffs — the other being the very next year, when the Cavaliers started 0-3 and missed the postseason on a tiebreaker.
There have certainly been other slow starts to LeBron seasons since then. His first season in Miami, the Heat started 8-7. In 2014-15, LeBron’s first year back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers started 5-7. Last year the Cavs started 5-7. But all three of those squads found their groove, and all three of those teams made the NBA Finals.
When LeBron decided to sign with the Lakers this offseason, he knew two things: One is that all the pressure would be on his shoulders, perhaps even more so than he’s used to, because he’s forever chasing Michael Jordan as the G.O.A.T. player and the Lakers are forever competing with the Boston Celtics as the G.O.A.T. franchise. And two is that, well, this was a young team, and young teams take time. They take patience. They show promise while breeding frustration.
Young teams do things like the Lakers did on Monday night. Such as:
Not follow game plans. “We gotta get better at the little things: Paying attention to details, following game plans,” Walton said after the game. “The game plan tonight: Keep them off the free-throw line. And defensive rebounding. They hurt us with both of those.” Specifically, the Timberwolves shot 30 free throws and made 26 of them, while the Lakers shot 15 free throws and made 10 of them. “It’s hard to win games when you’re putting the other team on the line 30 times.”
Get out-hustled on the offensive glass. “We gave up 20 offensive rebounds,” LeBron said afterward. “We knew coming into the game they were a really good offensive rebounding team. We stressed that, understood that — and we still allowed them to get second-chance points. You can’t do that on the road, especially when you play defense the way we played.”
Speaking of which: Play lackluster, unfocused defense, which can turn into lackluster, unfocused offense. The Lakers were discombobulated from the tip. Walton said they came out “soft” defensively and were “lazy” with their passing; if ever there were two words to describe a young team, “soft” and “lazy” are the ones. “We had a lot of opportunities to run early, and we didn’t take advantage of it because we were just flinging the ball around,” Walton said. “You get chances to get out and score and do what we do best, which is run, we need to take full advantage of that. We can’t be trying to make home-run passes or lazy passes.”
And finally: Not finish games. The Lakers certainly could have won this game. I’d argue they should have. But halfway through the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves suddenly got hot. They made eight 3s in that final quarter, and it was more complex than just sometimes the ball falls through the hoop and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of those 3s involved defensive mistakes, where Lakers defenders didn’t follow the defensive plan. “We went under on (Butler) twice,” Walton said. “The bench was yelling. The coverage was to get into him, force him down off the 3-point line. We didn’t do it. We just have to get better. It’s the same story.”
Forget the veterans signed to one-year deals. The core of the Lakers roster surrounding LeBron — the players who really matter if this franchise wants to compete for championships down the road — is incredibly young. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are 21. Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma are 23. Svi Mykhailiuk, who may be the best shooter on this shooting-starved team, is 21. This is the first team in LeBron’s career where he is the oldest player. It’s not exactly a surprise that this team has had a bumpy beginning to the season, and has a 1-5 record in close games. This is what young teams do.
So we must be patient.
But what happens when that patience runs out?
What happens when it runs out with fans? Or with the front office?
More to the point, what happens when LeBron’s patience runs out?
I asked him that on Monday night. I asked him what he looks like as a leader when he runs out of patience.
“You probably don’t want to be around when my patience runs out,” he replied.
This team is not in panic territory yet. Their early-season struggles have been marred by the brawl against the Houston Rockets and the ensuing suspensions to Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram, which could not have helped their quest for chemistry. There were good signs on Monday night. Ingram looked hungry in his first game back from the suspension. He could have had more than 24 points if he hadn’t gotten into foul trouble. Walton fiddled with his lineup combinations, specifically with using Ingram more when LeBron was off the court. It worked. Ingram scored zero points in seven first-half minutes with LeBron on the court, and then 17 points in six first-half minutes with LeBron off the court. Ingram made three of his five 3s as well, while playing aggressively on defense, blocking three shots.
But after the game, the frustrations outweighed the positive signs.
“We talk about patience, but we can’t have recurrences of the same thing,” LeBron said. “Doing the same things over and over and over and expecting a different result — that’s insanity. We have to get better.”
And they will get better. Of course they will. Five of their next seven games are home, and they have a couple of what should be layups in there against Dallas, Sacramento and Atlanta. Chemistry takes time, and like virtually every LeBron team that’s had a rough start to a season, this team will improve. Maybe not exponentially, but they will improve.
And they better improve. Because patience is a virtue, but it will not last forever. Hell, it may not last until Thanksgiving.
“It’s going to be a tough flight home, but like I told our guys, nobody feels sorry for us,” Walton said. “It’s up to us to figure it out and start winning some of these close games. And we will. I can promise you that. We will start to win some of these.”
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