LeBron James embraces challenge of driving Lakers to playoffs

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

AKRON, Ohio -- LeBron James says the Los Angeles Lakers' string of free-agent acquisitions since he committed to the team --Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley -- share a common bond as basketball junkies and that quality should define them more so than their spotty reputations as interesting locker room characters.

"We just got guys that love to play basketball," James told ESPN's Rachel Nichols as part of a wide-ranging sit-down interview Monday at the opening of his I Promise School. "At the end of the day, guys that love to play ball, and that's what they do every single day, I love that. I love that, and I think [Rob] Pelinka and Magic [Johnson] love that as well, and that's why they made the signings. And bringing Lance and JaVale and Beas and Rondo, they're guys that every day that they wake up, they think about the game of basketball. And everything else is secondary.

"So we look forward to all the challenges. And, I mean, eyebrows are always going to get raised when my name is involved anyway. So it shouldn't even be a surprise."

James repeatedly praised Pelinka, the Lakers' general manager, along with Johnson, the team president and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss for their stewardship of a franchise that he hopes to return to its past glory.

"I just felt like at this point in my career, the ultimate for me, just like when I went to Miami -- everyone kind of looks at me joining a superteam, but if people look at it, I think Miami was 35-47 the year before I joined that team," James said.

James' recollection was a little off. The Heat went 47-35 before he joined them and 58-24 in his first season in Miami, losing in the NBA Finals. The Lakers were 35-47 last season and haven't made the playoffs since 2013, hitting a dry spell after amassing 16 championships in the past.

James said he is looking forward to the challenge.

"I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to places that they haven't been in quite a while," James said. "And obviously the Lakers haven't made the playoffs in a few years, but the Lakers organization and historical franchise matches up there with all the greats. You can look at the Cowboys and you can look at the Patriots, you can look at Manchester United, the Boston Celtics -- these are like historical franchises. And for me to be a part of that, I think it's a great move not only for me but for my family and for the history of basketball in general."

James, who will turn 34 in December, is entering his 16th season. He has won three championships and made it to the NBA Finals nine times, including an ongoing streak of eight years.

Does he feel like he is sacrificing a year of his prime to play with a team full of the aforementioned signees and an untested young core, rather than staying on a squad that was more championship-ready?

"I don't even look at it like that because I don't feel like this is going to be one of the last years of my prime," James said. "That's another statistic number, and I've always been a part of beating the odds in life. So being around my kids a lot, it gives me even more and more time in my youth.

"So I don't feel like this is even a rebuilding year for us. We have an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don't think we can do, and we love the notion of it's another rebuilding year and we don't have enough. So that will motivate the guys that we have anyways."

He was later pressed during a news conference to predict how the Lakers will fare in 2018-19 in their first go-round together.

"What my expectations are for the team, we don't have any right now. But we're definitely going to be better than we were the previous year," James said. "I think there's going to be months where we're really good, there's going to be months where we're not so good, and that's just to come from familiarity."

He also detailed what led him to make his announcement on July 1, when his previous free-agency decisions had dragged out longer.

"I did my due diligence after the season on the pros and cons of a lot of different teams, including the Cavs, including Philadelphia, including Houstonand Los Angeles," James said. "It wasn't as quick as it may seem. It just wasn't as July 9th [range] as it was before. After talking to my family more than anybody, I felt this was the next step in my journey."

He added, on the subject of timing, to Rachel Nichols, "I'm just at a point where I know what I want, what I like. ... There was no need for the dramatics of a drawn-out conclusion of things. Just get right to it."

Still, James admitted it's "weird" to identify as a Laker after announcing his decision nearly a month ago. He elaborated on the other teams he considered, including the Rockets and 76ers.

"I definitely thought long and hard about the possibilities of lining up alongside Ben [Simmons] and [Joel] Embiid or lining up aside [James] Harden and Chris [Paul],'' he said.

But his choice is in the past now, just like the Lakers' inability to strike a deal to acquire Kawhi Leonard in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs or secure a free-agency meeting with the Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George.

James was asked why he didn't leverage his decision by requesting that the Lakers trade for Leonard first before he would commit to the purple-and-gold.

"Because I love the young guys that they have, and I'm not trying to force my hand in no way, shape or form," James said. "I believe Rob and Magic and Jeanie have done an unbelievable job of kind of reshaping what the organization should be in the last few years and keeping Dr. [Jerry] Buss and his dreams and what he was all about, to keep that going. So I feel like they know what's best for the team, and I wanted to be a piece to kind of continue that motion on coming back and being back to a championship franchise where they should be."

As for George, James said he did not have "many" conversations about teaming up and that he supports his decision to stay in Oklahoma.

"I think Paul did what was best for him," James said. "I think that's what everybody should do as players. They should do what's best for them and their family. They shouldn't get too pressured by anybody."

And so, instead of Leonard and George, James will team with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart -- not to mention the potpourri of vets who were signed -- and play in the ultracompetitive Western Conference for the first time in his career.

Is he ready for it?

"Absolutely. That's all a part of the mindset," James said. "There's going to be times with us being a young group playing together, there's going to be times where it doesn't look like what we would think. There's going to be times where guys are going to question what's going on. That's just human nature understanding that. But I've always been a part of it. I know a lot about the ups and downs of a season, and one thing we can't do is lose focus on what the main goal is, and the main goal is to continue to be as great as we can be every day, build championship habits, and not even saying that we're a championship team now, but building championship habits to when we get to that point and we can fall back on some of them.

"So we have a great young core, we have great veterans, we have a great system and a great organization, more importantly, so it should be fun."

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