LOS ANGELES -- There are foreign roads to navigate, traffic to curse and weather to bless. Change can be a mixed bag, even for LeBron James, and we haven’t yet mentioned his other new and complex surroundings, meaning, teammates to break in.
There’s also a third layer to this unfamiliar skin, and this could be the most uncomfortable of them all. Yes, if LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers are to deliver more than just must-see TV for insomniacs around most of the country, they must find a way to flex muscle in the Western Conference. As LeBron has already discovered, he ain’t in Kansas anymore. Actually, make that Orlando, Charlotte, Brooklyn, etc., etc., etc.
For a superstar who doesn’t take nights off, he can’t afford to do so anyway in the Western Conference, where there’s seemingly another potential 50-game winner staring from the other bench.
That’s what Thursday was all about, planting concern into the heads of the elite teams of the West and making them notice what’s taking place in Los Angeles. The Nuggets came into Staples Center undefeated and left with some clues about what LeBron and the Lakers can be in the near future.
“Growth that’s continuing to happen,” is how Lakers coach Luke Walton described it.
LeBron had his first triple-double as a Laker and given the circumstances -- no Rajon Rondo or Brandon Ingram, both suspended, for a second straight game -- they delivered their most impressive 48 minutes of the season with a 121-114 win.
“The first couple of games when we fell behind, we stayed behind,” said LeBron, noting how the Lakers seized control from the Nuggets for good late. “The best teacher in life is experience.”
These are the type of games he will see more frequently than he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. For someone who spent his entire career in the Eastern Conference, the upgrade in competition will force LeBron and the Lakers to sharpen their learning curve. Already the West shows few signs of fall-off from a year ago when 10 teams finished with winning records.
It’s a small sample size so far, yet once again, it’s business as usual in the better conference.
The Golden State Warriors remain the class of the conference and league, with all the usual suspects that delivered three championships in four seasons accounted for. Yes, Klay Thompson might need to dispatch his trusty dog, Rocco, to search for his missing jumper. But as long as Stephen Curry is dropping in 51-point games (as he did Wednesday against the Washington Wizards), they'll be alright.
What’s interesting and most frightening about the Warriors is how they’re still a few months from suiting up DeMarcus Cousins, who has advanced to light work and dropping sweat in non-contact drills.
Last season’s West runner-ups, the Houston Rockets, are missing the perimeter defense and shooting of the departed Trevor Ariza. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony is shooting 26 percent from deep and straining while trying to keep this from becoming an extension from his Oklahoma City stop. James Harden is dealing with a tweaky hamstring and Chris Paul, fresh from wiping Rajon Rondo’s DNA off his face, is serving out a suspension.
LeBron is bringing all those guys confidence up. Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, they’ll be better off for it. He’s a great player and slowly the team will round into form."
Yet this will not last long and, already, Rockets GM Daryl Morey is up to his tricks. Reports are circulating he's scheming to trade a plate of Texas brisket to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. If Morey pulls that off, the Rockets will have three All-Stars in their starting five, second only to the Warriors four last season.
LeBron must beware of Rondo’s old team, which is playing like it isn’t missing Rondo as much as some folks were led to believe. The New Orleans Pelicans is flourishing with a breezy style that’s a carryover from their surprising run to the 2018 West semifinals. Nikola Mirotic (28 points per game) is averaging nearly as many points as Anthony Davis (30.3 ppg) and ex-Laker Julius Randle is fitting right in next to Davis.
The San Antonio Spurs, speaking of unexpected teams, are off to a good start. Behind DeMar DeRozan, they could make it 22 straight playoff appearances ... even after all their offseason roster moves and early injuries. And Patrick Beverley recently said the LA Clippers are the best team in LA (but take that for what it’s worth).
Still, it all shows you that nobody is rolling out the red carpet for the Lakers just because they added LeBron.
The Nuggets missed the playoffs on the final regular season day last season and they’re perhaps wiser for it. Nikola Jokic is making his top-three center case and Denver’s Defensive Rating is among the league's best.
What they saw Thursday was a controlled and efficient game from LeBron (28 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists), Lonzo Ball stripping Jamal Murray in the open floor for one of his five steals, former Warriors role player JaVale McGee scoring 21 points on his 16 shots and a highly entertaining energy boost from Lance Stephenson off the bench.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone was an assistant from 2005-10 in Cleveland and therefore saw the LeBron Effect first-hand in those formative years.
“Sure, the West is tougher,” Malone said, “but also this is his first time playing with all those guys. As he said, this will take time. It doesn’t happen overnight, just as it didn’t last year in Oklahoma City when they brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and everybody thought they were going to be great right away. Playing with LeBron isn’t easy. It's easy, but it isn’t easy. When we traded for guys like Wally Szczerbiak, he comes in and says 'I’ve never been this open in my life.’ He had a hard time making shots because he was so open.
“LeBron is bringing all those guys confidence up. Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, they’ll be better off for it. He’s a great player and slowly the team will round into form. My definition of greatness is, what can you do for everyone around you? Can you take them to new heights? And he has done that repeatedly throughout his career. He’s doing the same thing now in LA.”
A week into the season tells us this about the Lakers: They’ve played four of their five games against playoff teams, winning only one but taking the other three well into the fourth quarter. They’re two missed LeBron free throws from a winning record. LeBron is MVP-like and sturdy as ever, and the other pieces are slowly dropping into place.
Whether it’ll be good enough to make traction in a tough conference will take months to sort out. Yes, the West is better. But that’s also because the Lakers fueled by LeBron, no longer the post-Kobe pushovers, are better as well.
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