LeBron James' challenge: Meet or surpass lofty Los Angeles Laker expectations

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell


Sep 24, 2018 10:32 PM ET

The new Lakers' uniform fits: Can LeBron and company eventually raise it to the rafters?

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Sometimes, before you get the chance to play the part, you must look the part. And on his official first day as a Laker, that’s all LeBron James was trying to pull off, in an unfamiliar uniform awash in gold with purple trimming. A weird sight, you say?

“Looks fine to me,” said Rajon Rondo.

“Nice,” added Lonzo Ball.

“Fits him,” said Kyle Kuzma.

So the Laker flock has spoken, and now that this sartorial issue is behind him, the next task is to get that jersey off his back and raised to the rafters someday. Should that happen, it would surely mean LeBron, and by extension the Lakers, did something special over the course of time to earn that honor.

That’s the challenge at the start of the LeBron Laker era: Meet or surpass expectations that may or may not be too steep.

Throughout his career, when LeBron arrived, he raised the level of consciousness within his team and the hopes of the city that team represented. It began in 2003, when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him, then continued to the Miami Heat with the “not one, not two, not three” championship proclamation, then the return to Cleveland to fulfill some unfinished business. Now he’s with a franchise that hasn’t won a championship since 2010 or made the playoffs since 2013, a dry spell that other teams would kill for. But this is the Lakers.

Can LeBron help the Lakers regain their top-tier NBA status?

This is tradition that craves to continue. The Cavaliers hadn’t won a title when he arrived, and the Heat only had one. The Lakers own 16 titles, and he only needs to stare upstairs at the row of championship trophies sitting in the window of owner Jeanie Buss’ office, which overlooks the practice floor at the training facility, to be reminded how this is a different animal.

“The excitement around the game for me in general, no matter what uniform I’m in -- I’m just always humbled that I’m able to play the game at this level,” he said. “I think we all know, and it can speak for itself, that this has been a historic franchise in this league for years. We don’t even have to talk about the years they won championships, talk about the players that have come through this franchise, worn this uniform. That’s excitement in its own right. And then it’s just always humbling for me any time I get an opportunity to be a part of something special … I’m happy to be in this point today.”

As for what’s coming in the months ahead, LeBron could’ve drank the training camp Kool-Aid that’s served at many NBA practice facilities around this time of year. Instead, he was blunt and realistic when he said: “We have a long way to go to get to Golden State.”

He knows the Lakers couldn’t convince Paul George to leave Oklahoma City or get DeMarcus Cousins on discount, as the Warriors did. Nor did LA get in on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes -- team president Magic Johnson unwilling to surrender a package of young Lakers to swing a trade.

And speaking of youth, LeBron also knows Kuzma, Ball and Brandon Ingram, all big parts of the rotation, are 23 and under and without playoff experience, thus lacking in big-boy basketball.

LeBron says he feels little pressure stepping into the L.A. spotlight.

In that sense, the essence of the LeBron James Experience might not receive a booster until next summer, when the Lakers will be armed with ample cap room for two max players and their youngsters will be a year older and perhaps wiser as well.

But that’s an issue for next year around this time. Meanwhile, the Lakers prepare to embark on a training camp that JaVale McGee is convinced will be spirited, all because of LeBron.

“He’ll raise the intensity, and actually, he already has,” said McGee, citing the handful of pre-camp scrimmages. “When he walks into the gym, it’s just a different feeling. You know you’ve got to meet his energy and bring your best. This will not only help us develop as a team, but will help us win games. He’s all business. That was pretty apparent right away.”

And so, it’s a delicate juggling act by LeBron: School the young players on the art of winning, deliver the level of excellence that a storied franchise demands and that he’s capable of bringing, yet maintaining a level of perspective about his first season with the Lakers. Of the projected nine-man rotation, five are newcomers, and only LeBron remains in his prime.

He said: “I don’t believe the only (mark) of success is winning a championship. There’s only one champion, but that doesn’t mean you’re not successful. There’s gonna be wins and losses and things of that nature. But what you can control is how you prepare every day. How we prepare every day to get better every day.

We’re a new ball club coming together. Obviously they have some returning guys, but as far as the ball club 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. That’s what happens with a team that’s new. But if we continue to work the process and continue to sacrifice for one another and put in the commitment and the time to be great, everything will fall into place as I’ve said before.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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