Inside the Lakers’ quest to turn a star-studded roster into a championship team

NBA

FIFTY-FIVE MINUTES before tipoff at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook take the court for a joint workout that Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy guides.

“We’ve been tied at the hip, pretty much, since we made the acquisition,” James says of Westbrook at media day. “We’re going to continue to be that. We’re going to hold each other accountable.”

He isn’t lying. Just like at their first sweat session together as teammates in August at the Yeshiva University High School’s gym just north of Beverlywood, California, Handy puts them through their paces.

James, wearing a black durag and a gold chain along with his Lakers-branded shorts and cutoff T-shirt, places the jumbo-sized plastic jug he’s holding on a plush sideline seat. What began as a monthlong challenge between him and his wife, Savannah, to drink a gallon of water a day in pre-pandemic times has continued for the 19-year NBA veteran.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes, James is soaked with perspiration, as he goes through Handy’s skill-sharpening obstacle course.

The pair pull off a series of moves: a drive into a spin capped by a pull-up jumper; a crossover, followed by two hesitation dribbles, a spin, then a reverse spin, and finished with a baseline fadeaway.

Combination after combination. Over and over again.

As the workout drags on, more and more Suns and Lakers players exit the court to head to their pregame locker rooms, and more and more fans enter the arena and make their way down to the lower bowl to watch the warm-up.

This is their glimpse of the new-look Lakers for the day — James and Westbrook elect not to play in the game in part because of an abnormal 3 p.m. tip time — and James obliges by entertaining.

When a drill calls for a layup at the end, James finishes with a ferocious dunk.

When he loses the ball out of bounds trying to execute one spin, he screams, “F—!” in frustration, before spotting a father and his son out of the corner of his eye, forming a shaka sign (hang loose) with his right hand and waving toward them in acknowledgment as a sort of mea culpa for his cuss word.

With the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” pumping in over the sound system while James is hunched over and catching his breath as he watches Westbrook take his turn, James is suddenly upright, breaking out just a hint of the salsa he showed off in a recent soft drink commercial.

As James and Westbrook make their way from one side of the court to the other when the workout is over, two fans — one in an orange LeBron Cavs jersey and the other in a black LeBron Lakers jersey — start bowing in James’ direction like Wayne and Garth saying, “We’re not worthy.”

While the Lakers are on the short list for most fascinating teams of the upcoming NBA season, are they worthy of the hype? Tinseltown has put together its fair share of celebrity-laden casts that flopped at the box office no matter how impressive the names on the poster were.

As L.A. embarks on its fourth season with James, its third with Anthony Davis and its first with Westbrook, managing the expectation of a team some have slotted to come out of the Western Conference with the spectacle of marquee names all adjoined to a single roster will be its biggest challenge. With only five holdovers from the 2020 NBA title team and nine new faces to integrate, time to coalesce will be imperative, but these Lakers can’t escape the fact that they’ll be scrutinized from the very start.

The questions are as prevalent as the star power. Will the pieces fit? How much personality is too much personality? Don’t all those veterans make them vulnerable?

Fans could tune in to see something awesome. They also could find themselves not being able to turn away if it looks like something awful.

“The game is won between those four lines,” James says. “And it’s not won on the bottom ticker, it’s not won in a newspaper and it’s not won on sports talk shows or things of that nature. We come out and put the time in, we put the work in, we make our own narrative.”


IT’S NEARLY A week into training camp, and L.A.’s undisputed leader is directing traffic during a spirited scrimmage to complete the day’s practice.

“Russ! This side, Russ, come on,” James says.

James, Westbrook, Davis, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk are going up against a team with Dwight Howard and a handful of the younger players rounding out the camp roster.

As James shoots up the court on the right wing, he surveys the floor and keeps in his teammates’ ears.

Westbrook finds Davis with a pass at the top of the key and then comes back to retrieve the ball from a dribble handoff. While that action is occurring, Monk cuts from the short corner to beyond the arc to get a feed from Westbrook, and Davis parks himself at the high post.

“Throw it to him,” James instructs. “Throw it to him!”

As soon as Monk bounces the entry pass into Davis, James resumes the diagramming.

“Cut, Russ!” James barks, with just a bit more urgency in his voice.

Westbrook runs from the top of the key to the right wing, replacing the spot James was just in, before James goes silent and flips the switch from coach on the floor back to being a player. James sprints from one wing to the other and gets the ball from Davis.

Davis sets James a screen that allows him to dribble back toward the middle of the court, but James chooses to drive left. Kent Bazemore defends him and contains him enough to thwart a baseline path right to the rim, but it doesn’t matter.

James fakes a spin move to the paint, picks up his dribble and shoots a teardrop fadeaway over Bazemore’s outstretched arm that falls through the net.

“Good s—, LB! Good s—, LB!” Davis yells as they clap hands on their way back down the floor.

In this moment, nothing about the team feels old. It is new. It is fresh. It is engaged.

“Our energy has been off-the-charts good,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel says in describing camp. “Really attentive to what we’re trying to install with regards to our system and our culture.”

On the very next possession, however, Lakers training camp invite Trevelin Queen — all springy legs and long arms at 6-foot-6 and 24 years of age — cuts baseline and pushes off of James as he pops back out to the wing, sending the 36-year-old hurtling to the floor.

“Oh, s—. Oh, s—!” James bellows as he rolls over on the court.

By the time James gets up, both arms spread wide, imploring the assistant coaches who are monitoring the game to call a foul, Queen has finished dunking the ball.

And in that moment, the reminder of the uncertainty surrounding this team’s outward ambition — general manager Rob Pelinka says he is “obsessed” with winning the 18th championship in franchise history to break a tie with the rival Boston Celtics for the most ever — is striking.

Masterful as they might be, the margin for error shrinks when considering the hundreds, if not thousands, of possessions just like that one that the Lakers’ aging roster will have to withstand over the course of an 82-game season before the playoffs even begin.

James has had two of his past three seasons sabotaged by significant injuries, missing 26 games because of a high ankle sprain in 2020-21 and 18 games in 2018-19 due to a strained groin.

A sprinkle of bad luck — like being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Solomon Hill lunges for a steal — and anyone on the Lakers is susceptible, no matter the age.

Before the Lakers’ six-game preseason slate had even finished, 36-year-old Trevor Ariza hurt his right ankle and 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker injured his right thumb. Both required surgery, and they will miss the start of the season.

The Lakers’ known quantity is its established core. Half of their roster has made the All-Star team. But even if James and Westbrook put in the extra time together to build cohesion, everything can fall apart with one untimely injury. And even if the Lakers avoid serious injuries late in the season, who’s to say the team chemistry will come quickly enough for them to be the ones hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June?


THERE THEY STAND.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, next to the No. 10 scorer in NBA history, right beside the guy with more triple-doubles than Oscar Robertson, flanking the three-time assists leader, who is shoulder’s length apart from the three-time blocks champ and the man on whose name will likely be included in every discussion about the greatest basketball player of all time forevermore.

Dwight. Melo. Russ. Rondo. AD. And Bron.

It’s the latest and greatest collection of talent by a Los Angeles Lakers franchise long known for stocking its team with the best the sport has to offer; Anthony’s addition means that seven of the top 10 scorers of all time slipped on the purple and gold at some point in their careers.

The six of them are gathered for a group photograph at the Lakers media day in El Segundo, California.

“Thought it was super rare to get a group photo with all those future Hall of Famers at once,” says J Alexander Diaz, who works for the Lakers as a creative director and arranged for the portrait. “Actually thought it was a long shot, but glad it worked out.”

If choreographing a photo can be considered a long shot, then how daunting is capturing a championship?

While they pose in front of a simple, white backdrop, the sheer assemblage of superstars might as well have come with a blinking neon sign floating behind them, announcing what everyone is thinking about them: This team better win.

The last couple of times the Lakers tried something like this, it went awry. Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2003, and while that team made the NBA Finals and lost, it was the last season O’Neal and Bryant would play together. Nearly a decade later, in 2012, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined Bryant and Pau Gasol in what would become one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, as injuries and infighting doomed that squad.

Rajon Rondo is asked if he sees any parallels between the Mamba/Diesel/Mailman/Glove edition and L.A.’s new superteam.

“Everybody’s up there in age,” the 35-year-old Rondo quips. “We’ve got a couple more guys. I think they have four [Hall of Famers]; we supposedly have six … 5½. I don’t know. … It was a while back, but I think the similarities are obviously the age.”

The Lakers know it won’t be easy to avoid previous failed attempts of putting together a superteam. But what good is anecdotal evidence when your intended course is unprecedented? James and Anthony are the first pair of 19-year veterans to ever play together, for instance.

“Every season is different. Every challenge is different. Every year is different. And I can’t base any previous team or any previous situation,” says James, after he, Westbrook and Davis play together for the first time in a preseason loss to the Golden State Warriors. “This year is about how much work we can put in, how much desire we have to get better and better.”

It requires a certain hubris to willingly take on the challenge the Lakers are facing this season, but big ideas, when properly executed, bring with them greater satisfaction than simple solutions do.

“We understand, I understand who’s on the team,” says Anthony, who along with Westbrook are the only ringless members of the six-pack. “Right now, we understand, OK, Bron, Melo, Russ, AD, Dwight … it goes on and on and on. We just want to come together. We want to enjoy this.

“When you’re on the road to try to go win something, a lot of times the fun can be taken out of it. We want to enjoy this journey, man.”

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