EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Oddsmakers in Las Vegas might consider them the favorites, and desire to repent for the 2018-19 debacle of a season might be palpable, but LeBron James is doing his best to keep the burden of expectations off the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
“I’m very motivated, but I’m right now not in talking-about-it mode,” James said Friday at the team’s annual media day. “Been very quiet this summer, for a reason. My mother always taught me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ That’s where I’m at. As a team, me myself, need to get the Lakers back to what they’ve been accustomed to every year, so excited about that.”
The 16-time champions have been in a rut lately, missing the playoffs for a franchise-worst six consecutive years. The joy surrounding James’ arrival last summer was short-lived as injuries, trade speculation and Magic Johnson’s shocking resignation sabotaged the four-time MVP’s inaugural campaign.
Yet optimism floated through the Lakers’ practice facility on the eve of training camp, with Anthony Davis, acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans in a June trade, donning the purple and gold as the centerpiece of a new-look roster.
“We do all know how good Anthony Davis is, and if we are not playing through Anthony Davis while he is on the floor, then there’s no sense to have him on the floor,” James said. “He’s that great. It doesn’t mean every time down we throw it to him, we throw it to him, we throw it to him. But we have the ability of doing it.”
Davis, an All-Star in six of his seven seasons in the league, was taken aback by James’ praise.
“Aw, he said that?” Davis asked, almost blushing. “Very kind of him. We’re going to feed off each other tremendously. I think we’re two guys who are very selfless and just want to win. When we have two guys like that, it makes both of our jobs easier.”
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said coach Frank Vogel’s address to the team Friday morning focused not only on L.A.’s big two in James and Davis, but the entire roster of players who will need to support one another.
“It’s about one thing — and it’s the 15 guys in the locker room,” Pelinka said. “I think our biggest opponent is in the mirror. We’ve got to look at ourselves as a team. We’ve got to figure out how we come together as 15 players to be the best team we can be. We have that focus.”
Anthony Davis describes how his conversations with LeBron seem to always relate to basketball and shares his excitement for the upcoming season.
Prioritizing camaraderie is paramount when trying to meld a collection of outsized personalities.
Among the Lakers’ offseason signings was Dwight Howard, who was brought in as a potential franchise savior in 2012 only to clash with Kobe Bryant and the coaching staff and leave as a free agent after one season.
“Just think it was divine timing,” Howard told ESPN when asked to explain the reunion. “That’s the only thing I can think of. Pretty sure nobody thought I’d be here. I didn’t think that for a while, but everything happens for a reason.”
Vogel credited the former defensive player of the year’s humility, and Pelinka, in a rare moment of stark honesty, explained that bringing in Howard was a low-risk move because his salary — the veterans minimum $2.6 million — does not become fully vested until Jan. 7. Meaning if Howard doesn’t ingratiate himself in the first three months, the Lakers can cut ties and move forward.
“It started with his openness to his concept of a nonguaranteed contract,” Pelinka said. “So he put his money where his mouth was and showed this desire to be a part of a group of guys and to do something bigger than himself.”
Howard was a late addition after DeMarcus Cousins tore the ACL in his left knee during an offseason pickup game. Cousins posed for photos in his No. 15 Lakers uniform separately from his teammates and did not speak to reporters. Cousins is facing a misdemeanor domestic violence charge after allegedly threatening his ex-girlfriend and mother of his 7-year-old son during a phone call this summer.
“The most important thing to say is the Lakers, as an organization, take allegations of domestic violence extremely seriously,” Pelinka said. “That said, when allegations are made, for any NBA player, the league takes over and handles that investigation. We’re going to abide by the league’s lead on this as that’s being investigated. And because it’s a legal matter, we can’t really speak any further about that. Right now, he’s a member of our roster and a part of the team. We’ll just have to wait for guidance from the league on next steps.”
Cousins’ status isn’t the only setback facing the Lakers heading into the season. Swingman Kyle Kuzma is sidelined indefinitely because of a stress reaction in his left foot suffered this summer while training with USA Basketball. However, the third-year forward expressed optimism about his progress.
“It’s good that we caught what I had at the right time, because it is serious, but it’s not serious,” he said. “It’s all about just rehabbing, getting back to it, progressing well and getting back out there with my teammates.”
His outlook fit the tone of the day for the Lakers, as James even managed to find a positive spin to his team losing out on Kawhi Leonard to the LA Clippers in free agency.
“Everyone’s talking about the big winners of the summertime: Is it the Nets? The Clippers? The Lakers? It’s actually Staples Center,” James said. “If you’re a fan of the game of basketball, you get an opportunity to see the Clippers one night and then get an opportunity to see the Lakers. … Staples Center is the place to be.”