LeBron James has faced a lot of opponents in his career. His “biggest test,” though? Self-restraint.
“My patience isn’t [endless],” James said. “I have a low tolerance for things of this nature. So it’s something I’m working on, as well, which I knew from the beginning, that that was going to be my biggest test, to see how much patience I got with the process.
“What helps me out is I’ve been through it before,” he added. “But at the same time, I’m a winner. I want to win, and I want to win now. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not down the line: I want to win now.”
And then, after saying all of that to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin on November 21, 2014, James went out and watched his Cleveland Cavaliers stumble their way through another disinterested outing: a 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards that dropped the team to 5-6 in the 2014-15 season.
LeBron’s come a long way since then. He’s turned in four more remarkable seasons to bolster his mounting case as perhaps the greatest basketball player ever and made a legitimate impact in the entertainment industry, as a philanthropist, and as a notable voice on issues of sociopolitical import. And he delivered Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52 years.
But while James has seen the virtues of patience, there are limits, ones that may be unbecoming of kings. LeBron might not see things exactly as he did in 2014, but he surely remembers starting the chain of events that led to the Andrew Wiggins–for–Kevin Love swap. And that his rocky reentry turned around after general manager David Griffin transformed the roster with January deals for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert. Each season that followed included at least one midseason shake-up to augment the roster for another Finals trip.
The Lakers have been careful not to inflate expectations, given both the yawning chasm they’ll have to leap to reach contention and the vanishingly small odds they have of toppling Golden State. But even with so much ground left to cover to get where he wants to be, LeBron’s not willing to concede much. As he recently told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, “I feel like with me on the floor, I can compete versus anybody individually. But at the end of the day, in order to win, your teams have to be great.”
Building that kind of team is the plan in L.A., and there’s no mystery about it. Every move the Lakers have made since Jeanie Buss handed the franchise’s reins to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka has pointed toward a reconstruction around two (or more) foundational pieces. They got the biggest one possible this summer, rounded out the roster with one-year deals for help-now, disappear-later vets—Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Beasley—to retain future flexibility, and then shed the remaining two years of Luol Deng’s bloated contract to afford a full-freight maximum-salaried contract next summer.
Now the chase begins. Haynes reported Wednesday that, in addition to the Knicks’ previously rumored interest, the Lakers and Clippers will also try to land Kevin Durant come July, which would certainly be in keeping with the franchise’s renewed interest in shopping at the top of the market. So would a push for Kawhi Leonard, whom the Lakers reportedly coveted before the Spurs shipped him up to Toronto for his final season before he can hit free agency, or Jimmy Butler, who’s definitely looking for a new home, but whose name hasn’t been connected much with the Lakers. As would perhaps the biggest possible swing L.A. could take: a rumored move that would pair LeBron with newly minted Klutch teammate and Game 1 MVP front-runner Anthony Davis.
We all know that the Lakers team that takes the floor to start the 2019-20 NBA season will look different from the one that tips off in Portland on Thursday. And if that’s the case—if this roster is just a placeholder—then what’s to stop James, Johnson, Pelinka, and Buss from deciding to accelerate the pace of change midstream with the kind of move that might bump up the hoped-for contention timetable by a season?
Players on rookie contracts account for more than half the Lakers’ roster, including several—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart—who have already showcased skills and traits that have established them as persons of interest in the NBA world. The Lakers own nearly all of their draft picks moving forward, owing only a 2019 second-rounder shipped out in the long, long ago of The Days You Would Trade for Roy Hibbert. James has the only significant deal on their books beyond this season. It is a roster constructed to be deconstructed. There’s no rule that says the project has to resume next summer; the Lakers don’t have to get any permits if they see the chance to move the needle.
Let’s say the chance for significant improvement, both now and for years to come, presents itself before July. Say, for example, the Lakers’ Thursday hosts falter enough in the season’s early months to convince them it’s time to get their Kevin O’Connor on by offering the sort of proposal floated by our own Bill Simmons during a recent podcast, and by ESPN’s Zach Lowe in a recent column: a trade that would send Ball (and perhaps Caldwell-Pope) to Portland in exchange for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Such a deal would give James a central-casting, tailor-made running buddy as he takes aim at the best in the West: a hard-nosed, 3-point-bombing, on- and off-ball playmaker with an established résumé in the clutch; a reputed leader whose game and comportment James reportedly respects; and a 28-year-old, three-time All-Star in his prime whose contract runs through the 2020-21 season, dovetailing with the expected LeBron-era window for contention.
If that opportunity, or another like it—to land a real difference-maker who could nudge those vanishingly small odds north in a meaningful way, in the middle, at the point, or elsewhere—finds its way onto the table, will the Lakers keep their powder dry and stick to the script? Or will a franchise long committed to the principle that megawatt stars matter more than anything else—one now led by a tentpole talent still, somehow, at the peak of his powers and in championship pursuit—strike while the iron’s hot?
“I’m going to be as patient as I can be,” James told Haynes. “I know I got a young squad, but these guys are willing to learn and I’m willing to learn with them.”
We’ll start to find out Thursday how much more patient James is now than he was in 2014, and whether he’s willing to ride a learning curve rather than trying to bend it into a sharply rising arrow.