HOW LEBRON AND A.D. WILL ESTABLISH LAKERS’ IDENTITY

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

The concept of a winning culture is something with which Lakers fans are very familiar, yet it’s still difficult to define. When you are a franchise that historically succeeds, you expect to win. When you have superstar players, you tend to win.

When you are talking about any organizational culture, though, it’s intangible—and it’s about leadership by some and daily habits by most, imbuing the group with a common mentality. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, it’s not as much people feeling good when working as it is about people being uplifted and driven to be productive: “Our research suggests that winning cultures are comprised of two interrelated and reinforcing elements. First, every high-performing company has a unique identity—distinctive characteristics that set it apart from other organizations. These characteristics give employees a sense of meaning just from being part of the company. They also create passion for what the company does.”

For any company or group, leaders are tasked with creating that identity and passion. And with a basketball team, leaders must bring specific individual consistency that breeds team-wide consistency in their special areas.

The 2019-20 Lakers will obviously rely on LeBron James and Anthony Davis, with their combined 21 All-Star selections. With preparations for their first season together wrapping up, we are gaining clarity on what LeBron and A.D. as team leaders will most bring to become bedrock in these Lakers’ identity—and in so doing establish this winning culture.

Boiling anything about James down to one thing is unfair because he prides himself on succeeding in so many areas. “I’m born to have workload,” James said. “It’s who I am. Both on and off the floor.”

But what has long separated James from other dominant players is his inclusive nature, which is backed by his fundamental willingness—nay, preference—to pass. The Lakers will in no way be a selfish basketball team with James captaining on deck, and his goal is to make them a uniquely unselfish basketball team. James will operate more as a point guard on offense this season, so he will control how and where the ball goes most of the time. You can be sure it won’t be stuck with him. “His ability to read help [defense],” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “is maybe the best ever.” James’ highest assist averages for his career came in his two seasons before joining the Lakers: 8.7 in 2016-17 and 9.1 in 2017-18. He was at 8.3 last season with the Lakers despite Lonzo Ball handling the ball often and teammates sometimes struggling to occupy in the right spots or convert James’ passes into made jump shots.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to see James hit 10 assists per game for his first time. League-wide, only Russell Westbrook (10.7) last season even reached nine assists per game—and Westbrook is now in Houston and sharing the ball with James Harden. Meanwhile, James teams up with another star in Davis, but this interestingly marks the first time James has really been with another star so like-minded about passing.

When Quinn Cook said, “He looks to pass before he shoots,” he actually wasn’t talking about James—he was talking about Davis, the guy who grew up playing guard because he didn’t hit his monster growth spurt until junior year in high school. Davis went from 2.3 assists to 3.9 assists per game last season, learning to be more patient in reading and passing out of double-teams—even baiting the trap with the sort of next-level thinking James uses.

Davis’ quest to improve his unselfish play will only be encouraged on James’ team, which should trickle down throughout the roster. Regarding James’ ridiculous spinning flip pass for Danny Green’s corner three-pointer Wednesday, James made a point to credit Davis for hitting James in stride with the break-out pass at midcourt. It set James up to make the next pass that he admitted with a grin was “up there” among his best ever.

“It started with A.D.’s outlet to me in the middle while I was streaking,” James said.

A less heralded but similarly noteworthy moment Wednesday came when Avery Bradley, who had a hot hand, set up for a three-pointer but then made the extra pass to the left corner for Green to get an even cleaner look. James made a point to go over and give Bradley thanks and encouragement as they went back on defense—even though on the surface there wasn’t anything to celebrate because Green had missed the shot.

“I went over and dapped A.B. up and was telling him, ‘No matter what happened with that shot, that’s a great pass,’ “ James said. “We talk about passing up good shots for great shots. But he passed up a great shot for an even greater shot. So we want to try and continue that and have high-assist games where everyone is feeling really good—and low turnovers.”

Jared Dudley put James’ court vision on par with his former teammate Steve Nash’s, saying of James: “He sees everything.” Dudley said James is also communicative about the details of how to be open for his passes. For instance, James will specifically remind teammates to space out properly and keep the “nail” (the middle of the free-throw line) free of help defenders when James is running his pick and roll and angling to get into the lane.

But elevating a team to be passionate about its unselfish identity goes far beyond sharing the ball well in games. It’s like having a boss who is excellent at having the copy machine filled with paper before you need it in the office. Very nice and much appreciated, but fundamentals aren’t what truly inspires. Consider how Quinn Cook put it when it comes to James: “He gives you so much confidence. He believes in everybody so much. And when you have a guy like that as your leader, giving you confidence, it does wonders for everybody on the team. He’s the ultimate leader.”

The logical flip side to James’ offensive tone-setting would be Davis’ stated commitment to defense, which is in lockstep with Vogel’s strongest directive. Vogel is seeking “dominant defense” and nothing less, which figures to be the greatest way Vogel’s leadership is imprinted on this group.

But when we look at how Davis is most likely to drive this team forward through a long season, it’s more nuanced than calling out screens or blocking shots. Bear in mind that he drove this entire process to come to the Lakers for a specific opportunity: to win and win big.

That hunger from Davis has already been evident in this short stretch with the Lakers. Scouts have noticed how uncommon it is for a star to play as hard as Davis has played in the preseason, diving for balls and crashing the boards. He has made clear he is disinclined to move into the “load management” spa most stars these days happily visit during the regular season. He obviously did not milk the sprained right thumb for down time. He surprised some in the organization by openly desiring to play in the preseason finale Friday before it was decided to hold him out.

Davis is committed to making the most of this season, which is hugely important in creating the passion of a team to achieve instead of just exist. “As the season goes on,” Davis said, “we want to get better game by game.”

Unlike many of the other key veterans on the team (James, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee), Davis has not been crowned before. He is well aware of the dynamic, noting that “we’ve got a lot of guys who’ve won.” Davis came to the Lakers after seven seasons in New Orleans to fulfill those aspirations. He isn’t going to be messing around.

“Now that I’m here, I just want to make the best of it,” Davis said. “This is a well-tuned organization who only cares about winning. So to be a part of something like this, coming from a small school and high school in Chicago, and coming from where I come from in Chicago, it’s surreal for me. And it’s exciting.” Davis’ initial reputation in New Orleans was as a great team guy who didn’t love being tough on teammates in holding them accountable. That part of his personality developed more in recent years, and it’s no longer a stretch to think he—especially given the aforementioned circumstances—will actually bring an edge to this Lakers team this season.

And in the same way that Davis’ hope to advance as a passer this season will be reinforced by James setting his unselfish tone, the two of them are set to synergize when it comes to Davis’ hunger. James’ legend is very much secure in this game whereas Davis is still building his, no doubt. But James is particularly motivated this season, too, after missing the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years—and not even making the playoffs in an injury-limited season.

Even if Davis is the hungriest, James will be seriously hunting his next meal.

From their work cubicles that together, with a vacant spot in between, occupy the back wall of the team’s locker room at Staples Center, Davis and James will set the mission statement for this company’s fiscal year.

Rest assured it will include dedicated unselfishness internally and relentless championship pursuit outwardly.

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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