Because LeBron James has appeared in every NBA Finals since The Decision broke the NBA earth, expectations followed his move to the west coast. Most of the time, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Except for this one teeny tiny thing messing it all up. The team LeBron joined is inexperienced and unproven. They are a bunch of kids who aren’t even 25 years old and barely know what their game is, much less how to compete under pressure, execute without making mistakes and have grit. They are mixed into the LeBron melting pot with a bunch of veterans that have been thrown away. So a NBA Finals appearance is more a dream than a reality, given what we know.
LeBron is realistic about what is going to happen in the 2018-19 season. He expects adversity, looks forward to it, wants it to happen. He knows you have to go through the hard things to blend and bond as an unselfish unit.
“We are picking up from scratch so we have a long way to go. We’re all new to each other; we have to take our bumps and our bruises. There are going to be good times and bad times.” (LeBron James, Lakers Media Day)
While LeBron is preaching to the choir, the unknown variable in his prediction is how long will the bad times last? Does this iteration of the Lakers have the capacity to overcome temporary failure when everyone is watching them and eagerly offering opinions of disgust and happiness? The Lakers are composed of the very young and the very volatile and LeBron. His leadership will be tested in a way it never has been in any of his previous stops.
It won’t be like his first go round in Cleveland where he was adored and pampered. In Miami, he had generational talent who had been around the block and Wade had won a title. His second go round in Cleveland, he had the talent of Kyrie to lean on when things broke down. No such answers here. You still cannot pencil in who is #2. Many think it is Kyle Kuzma but he is in his second year. He still is learning.
This is rare air for LeBron. Teacher. Big brother. Teammate. Cheerleader. Cop. Philosopher. Coach. Leader. Best Player. While he appeared at Lakers Media Day like he was asked to chew and swallow glass, the challenge to make his Los Angeles run as special as Cleveland and Miami creates a tsunami of expectations. Can he do everything within the glare of the media spotlight Los Angeles brings?
He’s playing with house money, absent of legitimate pressure, vulnerabilities masked. The pressure was after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. The summer that followed was one in which he refused to leave his house.
The pressure was Game 6 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio when Chris Bosh and Ray Allen made a Game 7 and back-to-back titles possible.
This first year in Los Angeles, LeBron can be himself and see what he has to work with while simultaneously evaluating everyone. Who fits? Who is fragile and can’t handle the expectations? Who needs to be somewhere else?
The bench already has a new name. Mud. Misunderstood. Underappreciated. Determined. The group that includes Rajon Rando, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson have been clowned and ridiculed because of behavior at their last stop(s) but Rondo and McGee have rings. Beasley and Stephenson have drama and LeBron has to make it all work, as he integrates veterans with young talent like Kuzma, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
When LeBron was asked for what seemed like the 100th time about the marriage between his sports career and his entertainment career, he rolled his eyes and said, “I’m a basketball player. I play ball. That’s what I do.” It was a simplification of a much larger Lakers narrative that has at its beginning, its middle and glorious end an anticipated reality the locals fetishize: winning.
That is what the Lakers do.