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Don’t call it a rivalry. And try to ignore everything you read or see on TV. When it comes to the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, LeBron James has already indicated it’s not yet a big deal.
Well, they know at the very least, the matchup can be billed as “LeBron vs. the Warriors,” and that is good enouugh.
James wore that label for the previous four years as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the 2015 Finals, James went at it alone, mostly, without the help of injured All-Star teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The next year, he beat the Warriors. Then the Warriors landed Kevin Durant and … well, you know the rest of the story.
Now, James is again surrounded by younger teammates with the Lakers, just like he was when he returned to the Cavaliers. And just like when he got to the Cavs, some of James’ current younger teammates have loads of ability — and virtually no experience winning when it matters most.
Brandon Ingram is expected to have a breakout season. Lonzo Ball is viewed as a point guard with a major upside. Kyle Kuzma is coming off a sensational rookie season. But they haven’t exactly “been there before.” Not at this level. Not against most opponents, but certainly not against a stacked team like the Warriors.
“We’ve got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” James said during LA’s media day.
Still, it took all of one preseason game, Wednesday night in Las Vegas, for the world to see what James has been denying. When it comes to this season, Lakers vs. Warriors is the game everyone will be watching most. This is the NBA’s newest rivalry and it is very real.
“It was a preseason game,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said, “but it didn’t feel like it.”
The shot of the night went to James, who buried a regular jumper, with perfect form, despite that it was actually a near-halfcourt heave from about 34 feet at the halftime buzzer.
James also flipped in a shot over his head, facing away from the hoop, while fouled, and threw a behind-the-back pass with his left hand while on the move. Of course, former Warriors and current Lakers center JaVale McGee missed the jam … and that is something James will have to get used to all over again.
He can be as sensational as ever, even at his advancing basketball age of 33 (soon to be 34) and the Lakers will still have a long way to go to get to Golden State.
POWER OF LEBRON
But if you know James, you know he won’t just accept constantly falling short. He will want the Lakers to make moves, bring in another star, maybe convincing management to purge some of the talented youth along the way. James may expect the Lakers to lose to the Warriors, but he is highly unlikely to accept it.
He has been to the Finals eight straight times. He didn’t move to California “just to make movies,” as so many have alleged. And even if that were true, James understands that winning big and building your brand generally go hand in hand.
He knows overtaking the Warriors as a member of the Lakers would only add to his legacy. LeBron is all about that. He’s earned it, too. He brought a championship to Cleveland two years after most said it couldn’t be done. He knows the path to having people uttering his name for years to come goes through the Warriors.
That is why the Lakers may look a little different by the time the trade deadline hits in early February. No one associated with this franchise wants to wait to give the Warriors a serious run. Not the fans, not the front office, not its biggest star. No one.
They may so it’s OK now. They may say there is a lot of season left. They may say LeBron is in Los Angeles for reasons other than just winning titles.
Don’t believe most of it.
Right now, today, Lakers vs. Warriors is not just a rivalry, but the NBA’s hottest rivalry. And that we cannot deny.