The Point

The Point: This LeBron Season Exemplifies His Lifelong Mindset

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

He shared the secret to success over that last stretch of basketball before this COVID-19 hiatus. He has shared it many times this season. Have you been listening?

LeBron James has tried to draw attention to the concept for many years now, actually. This season being the first time James has achieved this level of success in a Lakers uniform, it serves as another opportunity to educate and inspire. It absolutely applies to why the Lakers have been so good, so fast, despite a new roster, coaching staff and system.

And what James has brought to the Lakers is the same as what he has brought to life. He’s the rare person from whom so much was expected and yet even more was delivered.

“Personally, I want to continue to have a growth mindset with however the game is changing,” James said, referring to his long-range shooting after the Lakers beat Philadelphia, “being able to change my game while also still being true to who I am at the same time—and not have any weaknesses.”

Here is what James said after the Lakers’ next victory over Milwaukee:

“We learn from every game that we’ve played this year, both wins and losses. You’ve got to have a growth mindset and you’ve got to be able to grow in losses and be able to grow in wins as well—and see things that you could’ve done better, things that you did well that you can apply to the next game and things of that nature. It’s always a growth mindset for our ballclub.”

Just to be triple-clear, this is how James put it after his maestro performance in the Lakers’ victory over the Clippers on March 8:

“Just keeping the main thing the main thing. And that’s how I take care of my body, how I take care of my game, how I can take care of my mind. I want to try to continue to get better, even if it’s physically and if I lose a step here. But when your mind is sharp and you have a big basketball IQ, you can always cover for those things.”

At a time when James has played 58,378 regular-season and playoff NBA minutes—already more than current Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame finalists Kobe Bryant (57,278), Tim Duncan (56,738) and Kevin Garnett (55,701)—James is still striving for self-improvement.

The growth-mindset approach, detailed by psychologist Carol Dweck in her writings, boils down to why some people shy away from challenges whereas others embrace them. For all his natural gifts, James believes in becoming more invested and persistent when his gifts aren’t enough.

If you believe your abilities can be developed by those challenges—if you refuse to adopt a fixed mindset in the face of setbacks—you understand why James continually harks back to being just “a kid from Akron.”

He had to believe he could be more.

This is the one they make into posters, the one that works no matter if you’ve ever picked up a basketball, the one that resonates with the kids at his I Promise School who truly don’t know what the future holds but are posting rapidly improving test scores in the meantime:

“The reason why I’m the person I am today is because I went through those tough times when I was younger.”

For the deepest dive into James’ story, that’s it. It’s a separate but related category of self-improvement now that he is older with plenty of laurels to rest upon.

Four years ago, this was how James put it for Bleacher Report: “It doesn’t matter when you change; it’s the fact that you can know that you can get better, even at our age, even with our accolades, even with what we’ve done in our careers.”

The version of James that the Lakers have gotten is still physically overwhelming but, as he cited, with the biggest basketball IQ to date. Because Los Angeles traffic snarls are what they are, James uses his one-hour, 15-minute commute to Staples Center to treat the opposing team like a frog to be dissected for biology lab—studying what they did especially well the past two games and preparing to take it away. James’ stretch-run performance running the offense against the Clippers was another example of his IQ allowing the Lakers to hone in on opposition weaknesses without needing timeouts to draw up plays.

Perhaps just as important as that expanded basketball brain, this is the most experienced, polished leader that LeBron has ever been. The leadership aspect of him has grown to the point where he could help this franchise navigate a bumpy season that recently included Bryant’s tragic death. How many people could have spoken the way James spoke and then played the way James played that night that the Lakers returned to action after that helicopter accident?

A myriad of elements that are difficult to quantify should go into NBA MVP voting consideration. A prime example would be defensive communication, where Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James is the best on the team.

Leadership, however, is probably at the top of that intangible list. And James’ leadership skills at this point in his career mean that his messages carry more weight than ever.

Even if the advanced stats showing how the team compares when James is on vs. off the court are plain to read, the way James has led the team is what those on the inside truly feel in their hearts.

“Anthony’s a player in his prime who can do it all,” Vogel said of Anthony Davis. “But to be around LeBron on a day-to-day basis, to see how he works, how he prepares, to see his mind and how he dissects the game before it ever starts with the preparation and the film work, his mindset to play through things—all these things have been great for Anthony to be around. They have made him already that much stronger, and these are lessons and experiences that he’ll carry with him throughout the rest of his career.”

Davis brought up James’ oft-mentioned growth process when asked about his first Lakers season, saying: “Our team is constantly improving and getting better, so this first year for me has been nothing but amazing.”

And even though historically voters have struggled to identify which star on certain teams should be NBA MVP over another, note the endorsement offered by the Lakers’ leading scorer in reply to a question about James.

“MVP,” Davis said. “That’s it. MVP.”

In case you didn’t know, the Lakers listed James as questionable for the game March 10 against Brooklyn because of groin soreness. But Vogel said James “felt ready to go” that morning. So, he did.

It logically could’ve been a time to take it easier after consecutive extra-effort outings. Instead, James really pushed hard and gave the Lakers a chance to salvage the victory. James would’ve had another triple-double with a 10th assist if Davis had made the buzzer-beating three-pointer to complete the rally.

“We just missed it,” James said.

Note the pronoun choice by the leader. Note the teammate support in the follow-up comment: “That’s OK.”

James has always been lauded for his passing, which is why his league-leading 10.6-assist average this season has mostly been taken in stride. Fact is, James’ previous high for assists in a season was not nearly close: 9.1. To be accepting more ball-handling duties and passing precisely in such volume is another example of his growth mindset in action.

He has also done it while committing fewer turnovers than his final two years in Cleveland when he didn’t have this many assists. James is nevertheless absolutely focused on the turnovers as another area to improve for whatever remains of this season and the playoffs, saying after beating the Bucks and Clippers: “The best thing that came out of both games was we didn’t have high-turnover games.”

Before this break, the Lakers had already officially qualified for the playoffs. As much as we will all remember the unscheduled detours along the team’s path this regular season, elimination games will be the ultimate judge of this team and James’ 17th year in this league. But make no mistake about how much James has focused thus far on growth, both individual and team.

That’s why James doesn’t view the Lakers qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2013 as just a reflection of his growth.

“I came here to put this team and put this franchise back where they needed to be,” James said. “The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning. That was one of my responsibilities and one of my goals when I came here. And last year I wasn’t able to fulfill that. Hurt me to my heart to go down on Dec. 25 with the groin injury that I had. Knock on wood.”

And bear in mind that James with younger teammates Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma stood out as the Lakers’ two best tandems statistically this season. James sees everything and everyone in terms of greater growth, too.

“Congratulations to Kuz and to A.C.,” James added earlier this month, smiling, “for their first time being in the postseason.”

* * *

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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