There isn’t a “Dear Prudence” column for NBA players. In its place are rookie transition classes, locker room speeches, veterans sharing wisdom, and Stephen Jackson’s Instagram. The Lakers could use all of that and more right now. The young team that finished 35-47 last season and fell off the national radar has been subjected to the largest media circus in the league after LeBron James signed with Los Angeles this summer.
Pressure is omnipresent in James’s career. A championship is at stake every year. A handful of James’s new teammates can relate. Michael Beasley played with James in Miami during the 2013-14 season, and Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee have both been on championship teams. (James is really, really familiar with McGee from the past two Finals.)
For everyone else, the scrutiny will be alarming and constant. But exposure brings opportunity, and growing up quickly isn’t so bad if it means a shorter route to a ring or a big contract. That’s the LeBron Effect.
To find out how to navigate some of the new challenges in front of the Lakers, we asked three of James’s former teammates for advice: Carlos Boozer, who played with James on the Cavaliers in 2003-04 and is now playing in the Big3; Brendan Haywood, a Cavalier in 2014-15 and now an NBA TV analyst; and Richard Jefferson, who played in Cleveland in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Here’s the eight-step process to being his perfect teammate.
1. Be a Dwyane, Not a Dion
Brendan Haywood: “Everybody’s game had to change because LeBron James is the best player in basketball. He doesn’t change to fit you. You have to change to fit him, because his style is proven to work. So a guy like Kevin Love that was used to getting the ball on the block a certain amount of times had to get used to being the third option and being more of a spot-up shooter.
“Dion Waiters was used to having the ball in his hands. And I remember telling Dion, like, ‘Listen, LeBron’s here. It’s gonna be a little bit different for you this year. Last year, you and Kyrie [Irving] got to have the ball a lot. This year, it’s LeBron, it’s Kyrie, it’s Kevin Love. You’re gonna have to figure out different ways to be effective without the ball.’ And he didn’t. He didn’t really wanna hear that. That’s part of why he was traded very early in the season, because he didn’t fit. And so that’s part of it too. As a young player, you have to understand, ‘What is my role, now that LeBron James is here?’ If you can’t adjust and you can’t adapt, you might not be there long. That would be the message that I would say to a young player. Listen, Dion Waiters is a very good player in this league, but the Cavaliers pretty much figured out he didn’t fit with LeBron James, Kyrie, and Kevin Love. And he was forced to be moved on.
“LeBron’s not gonna expect you to get it overnight. But you have to be willing. [...] And the best example of that is Dwyane Wade. He flat out said after the first year [with LeBron in Miami] when the team I was on, the Dallas Mavericks, beat them for the championship. He said he was going to have to adjust his game to fit with LeBron if they’re going to win. So that’s what those young guys have to see. Are you gonna be Dwyane Wade and adjust your game, or are you gonna be Dion Waiters and be traded? Which one’s it gonna be?”
2. You Can’t Play a Young Man’s Game Anymore
Richard Jefferson: “It’s more about seeing which one of these young players will be able to handle the pressure and be able to adjust their game, and understand a dribble-up 3 with two minutes to go for the team last year might’ve worked, but for the team this year, it might not work. [...] Which player will be able to adjust, and be like, ‘OK, yes. I’m understanding the game of basketball at a higher level. We can get a better shot, or we’ll be able to get this shot at any point in time.’ So let’s not just go and play basketball. Because you can’t just play basketball anymore. It’s more about understanding the flow, the pace, the feel of the game, which will get accelerated because you’re not just playing with LeBron, but playing with Rondo.
“It’s more about how can I still be myself within the framework of the success of the team. The framework is going to be built around LeBron in a very, very good system that Luke Walton and the coaches will put in. But it’s going to be far different than what Kyle Kuzma’s success was based on the year before, or Brandon Ingram, or all of the young players’ success was based off of: go play, go make mistakes, shots that you could take the year before, but you can’t take this year. There’s a level of accountability that goes up quite a bit. [...] Understand that, hey, instead of you getting 26 minutes like you did before, you get 16. But take those 16 minutes and do anything that you can to be aggressive and to make an impact. Now, most young players would be like, ‘Oh, I’m not changing my game.’ But understanding that that’s a reality of the situation—that the better that you can adjust and the better you can tweak your game will allow for a higher level of success not only for you but also for the team.”
3. Help Him Help You
Carlos Boozer: “What people don’t realize is LeBron watches film to dissect his own team so that he can put his own team in the best position when they play certain matchups. I remember when he was playing against [my Chicago Bulls team], he was watching the film of how to get [Chris] Bosh a good shot, because Bosh was kinda getting lost in the offense with him and D-Wade being so dominant. So he was watching film on his own team trying to figure out how to get Bosh more involved.
“I think that I averaged 16 and [11 in 2003-04]. We both almost made the All-Star team, even though we missed the playoffs by a game or two. It was very easy, because he loved to pass. So, if you set a good screen and rolled, he’d find you. If you’re open, he’d find you. If you ran hard and transitioned, he’d find you. He was a very willing passer. I think LeBron’s gonna make Kuzma’s job so much easier. Give him easy shots.
“Ingram, let him be more efficient, so he doesn’t have to take so many dribbles and shoot a bad percentage. [...] A lot of young players go through that inconsistency. So I think playing with LeBron will make him more efficient. Running in transition, getting a layup, getting a dunk, LeBron driving to the hoop, sucking in all the defense for a wide-open jump shot. Putting him in position so he’s not going to get double-teamed. You’re going to be playing one-on-one, kid, so if you have a go-to move, go to it, because they’re not going to back off of LeBron.”
4. Sometimes You Have to Say No to Rihanna
Haywood: “You have to understand there’s a time to have fun and party, and play, and there’s a time to be serious. So you have to understand that you might be invited to a party that Rihanna’s at, but you can’t go because you guys have a back-to-back coming up. But that all comes with maturity, and I think that’s what it comes down to. I don’t worry about it with Rondo. But some of these younger guys, their popularity is going to get taken to another level. They’re gonna get so many more followers on Instagram and Twitter. They’re gonna be mentioned so much more on somebody’s basketball news shows because of LeBron James.”
5. Be Prepared for No Questions to Be About You
Jefferson: “It’s like, ‘Hey, what’d you think of that pass from ’Bron?’ When people would say this shit to me, I was like, ‘It was a really good pass. He’s fucking impressive. Now, I played with Jason Kidd for [seven] years. So, I have seen some pretty fucking amazing passes.’ [Reporters] can make this ‘that pass’ and ‘oh my God’ and it’s like, ‘It was a very good pass. You’ve heard of Jason Kidd, right? You’ve heard of him? I played 700 games with the man.’”
Boozer: “I remember our first game in Sacramento his rookie year. There were 10 times as much media even [than] the Sacramento Kings were used to, and they were in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers the year before. [...] No matter what, unless you’re in a reality TV show where there’s cameras in your face all the time, it’s still something new to get used to. Everywhere you go. You step out the bus, cameras in your face. You go to the hotel, there’s a million people outside the hotel. You go to the game, they’re banging on the bus trying to get to LeBron.”
6. Beware the Bad Attention Too
Haywood: “Something that you did before that might have only been seen by your fan base is seen by everybody because you’re playing with LeBron James, whether it’s good or bad.
“If you’re on the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron gets there, and you lose three games in a row, the NBA world really doesn’t care because the team isn’t that good. But if you lose three games in a row on a LeBron James team, that is going to be the topic until the next time you win. And it’s gonna be a lot of pressure. It’s gonna be a lot of scrutiny. A lot of times that scrutiny does not fall on LeBron James. It falls on a teammate. So, it’s gonna be ‘Oh, this guy ain’t doing that.’ They’re going to point the finger at them, like Kevin Love, or a Dion Waiters, or the coaching staff.
“If for three or four games you’re not shooting the ball well, and all those games are nationally televised games, people on your social media are calling you a bum. They’re saying you can’t play. And some of these [players] have never had that type of attention before. They’ve had attention, but they haven’t had this type of attention. LeBron James makes everything more. Drake has a song right now called ‘8 Out of 10.’ That’s what LeBron is.”
7. Know the Cost of Two Defensive Mistakes
Jefferson: “Last year, when Larry Nance Jr. went to the Cavs, Tristan Thompson was coming back off an injury. Larry was playing well, and the team was playing well. Tristan did not play very much in the first few games of the postseason. Come Game 7 [of the first round], they call on Tristan, and he shows up with a double-double. Point is this: Everybody’s going to get their opportunity. How you handle success, how you handle failure will determine your elevation in the situation.
“If you have a five-, six-game stretch where you’re not playing well, you can do one of two things: You can mope and pout and complain, or you can work harder, you can improve, and you can figure out how you can get back on the court. When the opportunity is given to you, you’ll be better prepared. You’ll be like, ‘OK, yes. This is not last year where if I missed one or two defensive assignments, it didn’t matter. We were knocked out of the playoffs in X amount of time.’ Here, you make one or two defensive mistakes, that could be the difference between the fourth and fifth seed.
“That’s something that’s very unique for young players. Some young players can gravitate toward that. Some guys can just shy away from that. It’s still basketball. You’re playing with a good player that’s a great teammate that everyone respects. That’s the lucky part. The parts that people might consider negative is pressure. But we’re in the fuckin’ NBA. Like, you’re getting paid millions of dollars. If you’re afraid of pressure, if you’re afraid of success or the responsibility that comes with the expectations of success, then that’s not the environment for you. You can go to a bad team and shoot 20 shots a night and enjoy yourself.”
8. Find the Gaps to Find Happiness
Jefferson: “Try and find out what your team needs. If you guys are 17th in the league in defensive rebounding, OK, we need more help on the glass. And what’s crazy is that the more you rebound as a player—let’s say you’re Kuzma and you’re pulling down eight, nine rebounds a night—you’re going to be on the court more. If your team is struggling in pick-and-roll defense and you’re [Kentavious] Caldwell-Pope, OK, well, if I just fuckin’ focus on just pick-and-roll defense, like that’s one thing that I really want to help us get better at, and your team can go from 17th in pick-and-roll defense to top 10 in pick-and-roll defense, that means that you’re going to get more time on the court. More time on the court means more shot opportunities. More shot opportunities means more scoring. More scoring means more money. If you figure out what your team needs, and you can fill that gap or you can fill that hole, then that gives you an opportunity to get all the other things that you want. But it’s not starting off [with] ‘I want to score more.’ It’s like, no, ‘I’m rebounding the ball,’ or ‘I’m playing really good defense, which allows me to be on the court longer, which gives me more opportunities to score points, which ultimately makes me happy.’”