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Sport LeBron James: Can champion teammates help him win another title?

17:25  05 october  2019
17:25  05 october  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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“ 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.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — 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.

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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.

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"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 Saturday against the Warriors at Chase Center 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 lineup? How will James and Davis accelerate their on-court chemistry? After finishing 21st out of 30 teams in total defense 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?

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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 playoffs 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."

Danny Green is one of five Lakers players with an NBA championship.© Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports Danny Green is one of five Lakers players with an NBA championship.

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 playoffs.

Nonetheless, Green captured in Thursday’s 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.

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"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 defense in training camp after helping the Indiana Pacers finish in the top 10 in defense 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.

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"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 center 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."

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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."

Trusted champions

The Lakers had already made their big splash. Unlike what happened leading into last season’s trade deadline, the Lakers finally acquired Davis from New Orleans for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and the No. 4 pick before the NBA draft. Hence, the Lakers finally gave James the player he had wanted to play with his first season before missing 27 games with a strained left groin.

The Lakers were not satisfied, though. They wanted another star in Kawhi Leonard, for obvious reasons. He had already won his second NBA championship and second Finals MVP award in his first season in Toronto. Yet, Leonard had still cast a wandering eye about playing near his hometown.

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Despite granting the Lakers a free-agent meeting, Leonard chose the Clippers partly so he and Paul George could team up together and forge their own path. Instead of allowing Leonard’s decision to solely define their off-season moves, the Lakers quickly pivoted toward fulfilling other roster needs. So the Lakers turned to Leonard’’s former teammate to bolster their outside shooting after finishing 29th last season in that category (33.3 percent) . After all, Green shot a career-high 45.5 percent from deep last season in Toronto.

"As soon as he made the decision, it was easier to fill out the roster and use the cap space he didn’t take to sign guys," said Green, who signed a three-year, $32 million deal. "As soon as I found out there was space and I could come on board, I was excited. I think I’m going to fit perfectly fine alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis."

The Lakers also pivoted to signing center DeMarcus Cousins after he showed progress with Golden State in both rehabbing his injured left Achilles and mercurial reputation. Cousins soon injured the ACL in his left knee during an offseason pickup game in what could be a season-ending injury. The Lakers could struggle without Cousins, but they indirectly benefited from his signing. Rondo said that Cousins’ signing "tipped the scale" after playing nearly half a season together in New Orleans in 2017-18. It also helped that the Lakers had James and landed Davis, who also played with Rondo on the Pelicans.

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"Me being late in my career, I wanted to play with guys that I knew wanted to go to war with," Rondo said.

Cook and McGee had similar sentiments. McGee enjoyed his first season with the Lakers after posting a career high in points (12.0) and his most minutes in seven years (22.3). McGee relished having the role as a rim protector, lob threat and screen setter, and has since been competing with Dwight Howard for the starting center position.

The Warriors hoped to retain Cook, but those plans changed. Following Kevin Durant’s departure to Brooklyn, the Warriors acquired D’Angelo Russell as part of a sign-and-trade, a move that left them hard-capped. Beyond trading trusted veteran Andre Iguodala to Memphis for cost-cutting reasons, the Warriors had limited means to retain their other players.

Cook set his eyes closer on the Lakers for reasons beyond his late father loving the franchise. Cook already forged relationships with James when he played on Cleveland’s training camp roster (2014-15) and with Davis on two 10-day contracts in New Orleans (2016-17). With James and Davis collaborating with general manager Rob Pelinka on offseason moves, the Lakers considered Cook a natural fit both for his point guard skills and relationships.

"Those guys are the best guys in the league," Cook said of James and Davis. "So just to see how they work and how they prepare and take what they’re giving me, I apply it to myself and share it on to the next guy. That’s all we’ve been doing."

And because of that, the Lakers like their chances to win an NBA championship. Not only do they have James and Davis, they have a handful of trusted role players to make life easier for them.

"We did it within one year and had new guys coming in," Green said of his lone season in Toronto. "We don’t need much time. We can do it in a couple of months."

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter and on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James: Can champion teammates help him will another title?

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