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Can LeBron James’ championship-tested teammates help him win another NBA title?

By USA Today (TNS) - Oct 10,2019 - Last updated at Oct 10,2019

Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (Photo courtesy of Robert Hanashiro/USA Today/TNS)

EL SEGUNDO, California (TNS) — At some point during their frequent group conversations in person and through text messages, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James outlined a reality that left both their star and role players feeling inspired.

“LeBron let it be known from day one that there’s five of us who know what it takes,” Lakers guard Quinn Cook said.

James included himself in that category, obviously. He has won three NBA championships, has climbed to fourth place on the all-time scoring list and has entered his 17th season as one of the league’s best players. James also said those words with other people in mind besides Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ prized off-season acquisition.

James referred to the key supporting cast members that have also won NBA titles, including a veteran point guard that won in Boston over a decade ago (Rajon Rondo), a dangerous 3-point shooter that won five years ago in San Antonio and last season in Toronto (Danny Green), as well as an athletic big man (JaVale McGee) and dependable point guard (Cook) that were part of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty.

Amid all the Lakers’ changes in their front office, coaching staff and roster, James joked recently “the only thing that is the same is the floor and the trophies up there” along the office of Lakers team governor Jeanie Buss that oversees the practice court. The biggest difference? James will play with a handful of players who also have championship rings, instead of young players that still need to develop. Already, James has observed how that has made training camp relatively smoother than last season.

“For us to be able to learn things and not have to continue to go over and over it, it fast-tracks our process,” James said. “It’s not cheating the process. But it fast tracks it for us to be able to go on to something else and be able to just continue to pick up on it.”

The Lakers enter their pre-season opener on Saturday against the Warriors at Chase Centre in San Francisco still with plenty of question marks. James and Davis will play, but how else will Lakers coach Frank Vogel determine his starting line-up? How will James and Davis accelerate their on-court chemistry? After finishing 21st out of 30 teams in total defence last season (113.5 points allowed per game), can the Lakers become a consistently strong defensive team without fouling as they often have during scrimmages open to the media? Can James and Davis stay healthy? When will third-year forward Kyle Kuzma return to training camp after injuring his left foot with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup?

All of those variables likely will determine whether the Lakers can win an NBA championship for the first time in 10 years, let alone whether they make the play-offs for the first time in seven. The Lakers have stressed another factor, however, that they consider just as important to help them hoist a 17th Larry O’Brien trophy.

“Obviously superstars are going to do what they do. But most teams win playoff games when role players step up,” Green said. “That usually determines how far you will go and how much you’re going to win, when role players step up and play good basketball. Those are the usually the teams that win and is the last one standing.”

 

Establishing culture

 

If the Lakers become the last team standing, the highlight reels will not show what happened in a preseason scrimmage. Save the footage for the key moments during the NBA play-offs.

Nonetheless, Green captured in scrimmage why the Lakers value dependable role players both to inspire their younger teammates and challenge their stars. On one possession, Green forced James to make an errant pass. On another, Green swiped the ball from James and finished with an open layup.

“That end of the floor is what I’m supposed to do,” Green said. “I’m supposed to make shots when I’m open, but I have to bring it every night regardless if I’m making shots or not. We’ll let our two captains carry us for the most part. But everybody here is trying to be locked in defensively.”

Those words will sound pleasant to Vogel, who has mostly emphasized defence in training camp after helping the Indiana Pacers finish in the top 10 in defence every full season he coached them from 2012-16 No wonder Vogel singled out Green when he assessed what he has seen so far from the role players who already have championship rings.

“Danny Green, in particular, has really been vocal,” Vogel said. “He’s been putting guys in spots and using his leadership and experience just to help us get acclimated and together as quickly as possible.”

Other examples have emerged, too.

Rondo has shown different sides to his personality. He showed his unyielding honesty when he called out Davis for arriving late to the Lakers’ media day last week. He showed his welcoming nature when he recently invited Cook to his house. He showed his positive reinforcement when he told veteran Avery Bradley that he wants him to guard him on every possession possible so that he feels challenged.

Rondo estimated he has “four or five little brothers” that he willingly mentors. After having philosophical differences with coaches during his time in Boston (Doc Rivers) and Dallas (Rick Carlisle), Rondo said he remains “willing to share” any tidbits after winning an NBA championship in Boston, playing on four All-Star teams and landing on two league All-Defensive First Teams.

“My biggest thing was just falling in love with the game, and not getting so caught up in becoming an NBA player,” Rondo said. “I’m just enjoying the game every day. I work every day on my craft, and just being a competitive person, I rose to the challenge and accept it for what it is. I never took any days off and I just played the game for fun versus trying to get to a certain level.”

Neither Cook nor McGee has as much equity as Rondo. Yet, they have also acquired championship wisdom in Golden State.

After the undrafted guard joined the Warriors’ G-League team two years ago, Cook became a trusted reserve amid Stephen Curry having overlapping injuries to his knees and ankles. The Warriors then signed Cook to their playoff roster and won an NBA title, and Cook stayed on for the following season.

The Warriors invited McGee on a training camp contract in 2016-17, and he shed his reputation as an eccentric centre that does not take the game seriously. Instead, the Warriors won two NBA titles partly because McGee offered a dose of athleticism with lobs and stops.

Since then, McGee and Cook have already noticed the Lakers emulating some of the Warriors’ team-oriented culture. McGee expressed feeling encouraged by the Lakers hosting team dinners and a preseason minicamp in Las Vegas. Cook praised the Lakers for having “high character guys” in the front office, coaching staff and on the roster.

“That is a championship-caliber thing,” McGee said. “Both teams like people being together during the season. So when they’re on the court, it’s second nature.”

During those times, how much do those players share their championship experience?

Accounts vary. Cook said “we talk every day” and often asks questions to his other accomplished teammates, while sharing his own journey. It does not appear the players have given dramatic speeches, however, on their championship experience. Instead, Green observed that he and teammates simply swap funny stories behind the scenes that involve observations about former teammates and coaches regarding their personality, style and on-court tendencies.

Either way, the Lakers reported experiencing a decreased learning curve thus far in training camp. The reason? Even if the Lakers have eight new players, half of them are over 30 years old.

“It’s just the respect factor on all levels, from the coaches to the players. We don’t spend as much time teaching versus us communicating on the floor how to make adjustments or changes,” Rondo said. “It’s still so early, we haven’t played any games. But as far as a mindset and a championship mentality, guys are at a different level.”

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