How Does LeBron Shape the Lakers' Youth and 'MUD' into a Contender?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 25, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James smiles as a microphone is placed on his chest during media day at the NBA basketball team's practice facility Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in El Segundo, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Normalcy has returned to the Lakers: The team opened media day Monday before the 2018-19 season with the biggest star in the game leading off the interviews.

"What, if anything, at this stage of your career creates pressure for you?" The Athletic's Andy Kamenetzky asked.

"Nothing," LeBron James answered, repeating with a smile and a laugh, "Nothing."

The Lakers have always been about superstars. It's been over five years since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon, hastening his decline and ultimate retirement in 2016.

James, at 33, is joining the Western Conference for the first time in his career, following eight straight NBA Finals appearances and three titles. Do the Lakers have the roster to push James' streak to nine, getting past the Golden State Warriors in the competitive West?

"We've got a long way to get to Golden State," James said. "They can pick up right where they left off with training camp...we're picking up from scratch."

James joins a Lakers squad with an intriguing, young core. The team also brought in several veterans, each with colorful personalities, in Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee.

On Instagram, James gave the group of four the nickname "MUD," for misunderstood, underappreciated and determined.

James specifically gushed about Rondo and his ability to think the game.

"It's going to be a really cool moment when I step on the floor with Rondo," James said. "Since I've competed against him over the years, he's always been one of the most cerebral players, smartest players that I've ever competed against. One of the most competitive guys I've competed against.

"There's not many of us in this league that can actually think and prepare with our minds before we even step on the floor and actually play the game like the two of us."

James is going to rely on Rondo for more than just his play, as the veteran point guard has already begun studying film with Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma.

"It was probably one of the best film sessions I've ever had," Ball said. "I'm definitely going to learn a lot from him this year."

Rondo was impressed by Kuzma's offseason dedication.

"He's on my good side," Rondo said. "I don't know how many second-year players are watching [film from pickup games] and critiquing themselves."

Consider Rondo as James' lieutenant, helping the team's younger stars learn a winning mentality.

Rajon Rondo
Rajon RondoMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Just watching him play pickup, five-on-five is crazy, because he's talking the whole time," Ball said. "For me, I want to be more of a vocal leader. He can definitely help me with that."

When it comes to the team's less experienced players, James liked what he saw last season.

"Watching these guys from the outside looking in, the level of pace that they play with, I'm excited about," he said. "I love running up and down."

The Lakers were third in the league in pace at 102.62 possessions per 48 minutes. The Cleveland Cavaliers were 12th at 100.06, but historically James has not played on teams that run as Los Angeles did through 2017-18.

Coach Luke Walton expects his squad to continue to run.

"Whether it's the same speed, faster, slower...we'll get to know our team as training camp goes. But we're going to play fast," Walton said. "We have a very deep team—a lot of guys that can push the ball. We want to attack. We think a big strength of ours this year will be our depth—the amount of guys we can throw at you. When you have that type of team, it's a big advantage to push it down and make other teams play more possessions and play at a faster pace."

The Lakers do have a deep roster, albeit a young one. Only James, Rondo and McGee are in their 30s.

As far as the incoming veterans, they're ready to follow James' example.

"We have a lot of dogs—guys who aren't afraid to go get those 50-50 balls," McGee said. "If they get hit in the mouth, they're going to hit you right back in your mouth. They're not afraid of anything. I feel like a good core of me, Rondo, Lance, Mike Beasley—we're just grimy guys who really like to get down and don't worry about the pretty stuff."

The veterans aren't as much of a worry as the younger players. Bryant certainly had his stone-faced moments in the face of his teammates' immaturity.

The blending of personalities won't be seamless, but from James' perspective, his Lakers teammates have a lot to offer.

"When you see how many guys who can do multiple things—pass, shoot, rebound, put the ball on the court, get out and run—it's going to be fun to see how I can implement myself into that," James said. "We're all new to each other. We have to take our bumps and our bruises. There's going to be good times and bad times...but if we continue to work the process and sacrifice for one another and put in the commitment and the time to being great, everything else will fall into place."

Meanwhile, each of the young Lakers worked on their games over the offseason.

"Zo has improved his body; you can tell just looking at him how much stronger he got," Josh Hart said. "I haven't seen a player improve as much as [Kuzma has] improved."

Kuzma said he worked on his guard skills to add to his versatility, but much of his focus was on the defensive end.

"That's been my focus the whole summer: really trying to get my body right, get stronger, quicker, more agile. The knock on me last year was defense," Kuzma said. "That's one area that I really wanted to fine-tune."

Ball, who was limited over the summer with a knee injury, strengthened his body in the gym while improving his jump shot.

"Everybody is saying my jumper is this new thing," Ball said. "To me, it's not really changed a lot. I think I just got a lot stronger, so I don't really have to fling the ball like I did last year. It's moved a little bit more to the middle, but it's still on the left side. I'm just trying to focus on my mechanics, keeping my hand up, my elbow in more."

Rondo, who acknowledged he's probably on the roster to mentor Ball ("It's obvious"), was impressed by the 20-year-old's rookie season.

"If you're a point guard that shoots 28 times a game or you dominate the ball every time down the court, the guys running the lane three or four times haven't touched the ball...the body language can start to drop, and now defensively, they're not giving you the energy you need," Rondo said. "Watching a young guy at that age [in Ball], being able to share the ball and he's not about himself, it's very refreshing that there are still point guards coming up that want to play the game the right way."

Brandon Ingram worked to improve his game on many levels with the arrival of ball-handlers like James and Rondo.

"I knew I was going to have the basketball in my hand. I knew I was going to be off the ball. It was important for me to work on different things, whether it was cutting to the basket...catch-and-shoot, anything," Ingram said.

He has a lineup in mind that he thinks could be dangerous.

From left to right: Lonzo Ball, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram.
From left to right: Lonzo Ball, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"Having Lonzo Ball, Rondo and LeBron James on the basketball floor, maybe with me and Kuz, so we can just shoot everything," Ingram said. "That's incredible, just to have those guys on the floor who can see the game like that and then you have scorers and defenders. That's a lot of talent when you step on the floor."

Beyond James' individual talents on the court, he's the team's leader. The "MUD" veterans are ready to do whatever they can to support him. The young players are eager to contribute.

Now, it's time for James and the Lakers to figure out how it all fits together through training camp and the first few weeks of the season.

It's difficult to say how Los Angeles compares to the rest of the league. The team may not be on the same level as the Warriors, but James alone makes any franchise a contender.

"It definitely helps when you have guys like LeBron," Hart said. "He and JaVale are world champions. Lance brings a certain kind of grit to the game. You have [Beasley]...Rondo, who is a world champion. Veteran guys who have been through everything."

Hart also expressed reasonable concerns.

"It's good because we can learn from them, but I just hope it doesn't stunt [Ingram's] growth and [my] growth or Lonzo's growth in terms of being a leader," he continued. "I think we can learn a lot from them...I think we're going to hold each other accountable to it. Make sure we talk as young guys. It's not just vets say this and that's what it is—not challenging the vets but just having conversations, trying to learn, but also grow into your leadership role."

That's the trick for James and the Lakers: Can they play winning basketball without stifling the development of the emerging talent?

James will need to find a balance between pushing his young teammates to perform and allowing them to find their own voices on the court.

For the Lakers' long-term success, that's more important than any specific win total for the 2018-19 season.

It's a journey James and his teammates will begin in earnest Tuesday as training camp gets underway.

                

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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