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Seismic Activity Reported in San Diego, L.A. and VEGAS.

On January 17, 1994, at 4:30 am, I woke up to the first rumblings of the Northridge earthquake. The steel and concrete apartment building where we live shook a little, and the shock waves lasted a little longer than usual, but it didn’t seem so bad to me.

As a native Angeleno, I felt the 1971 Sylmar earthquake on the second floor of a wooden duplex, and it was like a ship rolling over an angry ocean. That quake was so severe, it damaged the Van Norman Dam in the north east San Fernando Valley, forcing 80,000 people to evacuate their homes for four days.

On the other hand, my wife had never been in an earthquake before, and she was terrified. As it turned out, the Northridge quake was more powerful than Sylmar with property damage that made it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Now you may ask yourself why I’m talking about an earthquake in an article about basketball, but here’s the thing. Until you’ve experienced an act of nature first hand, you simply can’t comprehend what it means.

The coming of a superstar is an expectation-shattering, tectonic shift in the power structure of the NBA landscape.

Cavaliers fans know exactly what I’m talking about.

Heat fans will nod their heads in agreement.

And the haunted expressions on the faces of all those fans in Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta testify to the path of destruction left behind by one particular superstar who terrorized the East for nearly a decade.

But we Laker fans were clueless. Just look at the reactions of some of the idiots here: defacing murals; social media trolling; holding on to the ghost of washed Kobe; and, media people asking ridiculous questions like “what do you have to do to win the fans’ respect?”

Even those of us who were transported to basketball heaven at 5:05 p.m. PDT, July 1, 2018 simply couldn’t understand* what was going to happen on the hardwood floors without experiencing it first.

But now we’ve seen it…

LeBron James is not a basketball player.

He’s an asteroid with his own gravitational pull. He’s a tsunami of chalk, sweat and terror. And he’s the biggest earthquake to shake up California since the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco…

Could Oakland be next?

Tremor #1: In a totally unimportant preseason basketball game against the Denver, he did something in San Diego that reverberated throughout the city 121 miles to the north:

LeBron was in the game for 15 minutes, and he left a trail of wreckage through a solid Nuggets team that is expected to make the playoffs. He exerted himself for about 4 minutes in his two stints:

  • In the first one, he had two assists, and a transition basket that resulted in a 9–0 run in 1:15.
  • In the second one, with the score 40–36 and the starters back in, LeBron hit one of two free throws after a transition play, played some defense, got a rebound, forced a bad pass for a turnover, traveled for another turnover and then hit a 3-pointer to help the Lakers go on an 8–2 run in 1:59 and build a 15-point lead.

Here are the plus/minus minutes for the starters:

Nuggets: Millsap (-8); Craig (-6); Jokic (-7); Morris (-5); Barton (-4)

Lakers: Ingram (+12); James (+13); McGee (+11); Rondo (+5); Hart (+9)

I know Denver didn’t play their starting guards, and their shooting would certainly make a difference. But LeBron’s effect turns a journeyman center like Javale McGee into a dunking machine who could guard an All-Star level center and provide rim protection with 5 blocks.

Tremor #2: In an even less important preseason basketball game against Sacramento, The King decided to score at will to counteract an early deluge of 3-point shooting by the kings (maybe someday they’ll earn those capital letters). He finished with 18 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists in 16 minutes. But there’s something about LeBron’s leadership and the confidence he instills.

Is it possible a little LeBron can rub off on people?

Brandon Ingram might not say it, but Lakers fans have to wonder just a little. Against Sacramento, Ingram completely took over the second half, ending up with 31 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. It’s the third steal, with the game on the line that is noteworthy:

Not only have I never seen a player deflect an inbound pass four times in a row, I’ve never seen Brandon Ingram make a statement like this:

The way LeBron is supporting the young guys, as well as the rapport he’s built with Rondo, McGee, Lance and Beasley has been a total surprise, given his past history on twitter. We’ll have to see how long it lasts, especially if the team starts slowly, but LeBron’s leadership, patience and willingness to defer his normal style of play have been a revelation.

Tremor #3: In Las Vegas, the Lakers played the Warriors in another meaningless preseason game, but the atmosphere felt like a playoff game. Admittedly, the Warriors were without Draymond Green, so they are not the same team defensively, regardless of how good Curry, Durant and Thompson can light it up on their end of the court.

The first half was wildly entertaining and indicative of how competitive LeBron & randomly chosen gang at any time during the last five years vs the Warriors can be.

The Warriors didn’t blow the Lakers out of the water, as their biggest lead during the first half was 5 points. LeBron was acting as a facilitator for much of the time as he had 8 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists when he left the game with 5:49 left in the second quarter. Most people thought that was the end of his night after 13 minutes on the court, but he came back on the floor in a little less than two minutes, and led the Lakers on a 13–8 run, including his team’s last 7 points in the half, to give the Lakers a four point lead.

One play in particular said everything about LeBron’s leadership and his willingness to defer. In the second quarter, Lonzo brought the ball up the court and ran to the left side of the court, while LeBron was standing just outside the left elbow. Lonzo fired a pass to Lance in the left corner and set a little screen. Lance curled back around toward LeBron who then cut toward the basket, instead of demanding the ball. Both defenders hesitated a split second watching LeBron and Lance easily beat his man to the paint resulting in an easy shot near the rim and a foul. The layup rolled out of the rim, but the space LeBron created allowed this nothing play to create havoc on the Warriors defense.

This is no different from the way Stephen Curry bends defenses to the breaking point with his 3-point range. And the Lakers haven’t even installed a real offense. It just one more reason it’s clear…

Something special happens when a team gets a superstar.

With LeBron on the Lakers, he fills the role as the best player on the floor and it results in the following:

  1. LeBron’s presence draws the eyes of multiple opponents wherever he is on the court.
  2. This “gravity” gives the other starters more space to operate. Even a simple cut to the basket opens up the entire lane for another player to penetrate and get to the rim.
  3. LeBron’s ability to get to the rim at will, or make a fantastic pass to a cutter or a guy wide open in the corner is basically all the offense a coach will ever need. It will allow Luke Walton and the Lakers coaching staff to focus all their energy on scouting opponents and working out their defensive schemes.
  4. LeBron is the team’s security blanket, because he can take over a possession at the end of the shot clock, or at the end of a game.
  5. And then there are those momentum shifts where he energizes his team and the crowd by doing something magical:

That moment summed up the first Warriors game. LeBron finished the half with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in 17 minutes. While Curry, Durant and Thompson played most of the third quarter, the lead changed hands twice, with the Lakers leading by 2 when Durant fouled out of the game. (The refs were calling ticky tack fouls all night, which benefited the Lakers.)

And, with a victory over the Warriors, so ended the Lakers’ preseason.

I know, they have another game* against the Warriors on Friday, Oct. 12th in San Jose, but I think this quote from LeBron pretty much sums up how the Lakers feel about this last game:

“I don’t care if we turn the ball over 1,000 times, I want everybody to come out healthy. Luke (Walton) is not going to like that, but…everybody come out healthy and get ready for next Thursday that’s all that matters to me.”

LeBron had already decided not to play tonight, and the Lakers are resting Rondo, Hart and Ingram, while KCP is in Los Angeles for treatment. But the team has already sent a small message to the fans and the rest of the Western Conference.

The Lakers’ preseason has been a success on many levels.

  1. Ingram, Lonzo, Kuzma and Hart have all shared time on the court with LeBron and they look better than they ever had in half court offense. And in transition, they are off the charts. The Lakers scored 25 points in the first half against the Warriors’ starters (minus Green), a number they only matched in two full games last season, and finished the game with 38 fast break points. For context, last year, Golden State led the league averaging 18.8 fast break points, while the Lakers were second at 17.5.
  2. The Meme Team of Rondo, McGee, Stephenson, and Beasley have all made positive contributions to the team. I wasn’t surprised at all by Rondo, after seeing what he did in the playoffs last season against Portland. I was pleasantly surprised to see Javale McGee has become a bona fide NBA starting center. His ability to stretch the floor vertically for alley oops works just as well with a reluctant shooter like Rondo as it did when he was surrounded by Curry, Durant and Thompson. In addition, his energy running the floor and as a rim protector make him a far better fit with the Lakers than Brook Lopez. What has shocked me is how well Lance Stephenson is playing. He is providing energy, defense, and creating some crowd pleasing offensive plays that have resulted in finishes at the rim and good passes to the tune of 10 points and 3 assists per game. Pairing him with another point guard like Rondo or Lonzo gives him a little more structure so he doesn’t go into dance mode on every possession. Finally, Beasley’s efforts to learn the defensive system and bang underneath as a small ball 5 have been encouraging. For a guy who has been known as an uninterested and often clueless defender, Beasley has had a number of deflections and forced some turnovers. He’s still got a ways to go, but with the right players around him, he could become a valuable bench contributor.
  3. The Lakers’ end of the bench rookies (Svi, Bonga, and Williams) have improved dramatically since training camp started. Svi Mykhailiuk (I will never use his last name again) is a great shooter but has been a disaster on defense, while Bonga has couldn’t touch the ball in Summer League without traveling. And Jonathan Williams is a 6'9" banger and defender who might eventually find his way into playing back up center at the small ball 5 if none of the other candidates work out. Their play in the last preseason game was amazing (see notes below).
  4. LeBron James is not a basketball player; he’s a force of nature. Fans and blog boys around the NBA seem to have forgotten this fact, as many claimed LeBron didn’t care about winning because he signed with the Lakers.

Many people have predicted the Lakers will be cannon fodder in the first round, or might not even make the playoffs.

Are they in for a surprise.

Notes: The Lakers sat 5 of their top 7 players: LeBron, Ingram, Rondo, Hart and KCP, while the Warriors sat Durant and Iguodala.

Predictably, the fire power of Curry and Thompson and a few early missed layups by the Lakers helped the Warriors go up 38–21 at 1:44 of the 1st quarter and end the half with a 13-point lead.

The bright spots in the game were the play of rookies Svi, Bonga and Williams. Svi entered the game for Beasley with the Lakers trailing 12–14, Bonga entered the game for Lance and the score 15–29, and Williams entered the game for Lonzo at 19–29. They got invaluable minutes on the floor while Curry and Thompson were lighting up the Lakers, but rode out the initial shock (Warriors got up by 17) and started to contribute.

Svi got lost on defense often, but he finally made a 3-pointer, and ended up with 5 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and one turnover in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he made a nice floater over a 7-foot center, and ended up shooting 3 for 5, scoring another 6 points. His lack of defense was the main reason he ended up with a negative plus-minus rating (-14), but it was great to adjust to the speed of an NBA preseason game and finally get his offense going, something he hadn’t done in the first five games.

While both players are listed at 6'8", Bonga looked huge on the court as a point guard, while Svi looked tiny against shooting guards and small forwards.

Bonga focused on defense, and contributed 2 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and two turnovers for a positive plus-minus rating (+1) in the first half.

Johnathan Williams was a 5th year senior at Gonzaga and went undrafted. His strengths are rebounding and defense. At 6'9", 230 pounds, he’s able to bang bodies with other small ball 5’s, and it showed against the Warriors as he had 8 points and 3 rebounds in the first half, and had a neutral plus-minus rating (-1).

In the third quarter, the Warriors only played two starters, Green and Damian Jones along with their normal bench guys (McKinnie, Cook, Looney, Bell, Evans, Jerebko, and a brief run for Shaun Livingston), and got run off the floor by the Lakers’ bench 65–38.

Svi had 11 points and 3 assists in the second half, and is another guy who is comfortable as a ball handler and someone who could run the break. I’d like to see him play heavy minutes in the G-League at the beginning of the season in the hopes that he could learn the Lakers’ defensive system. He’s a hard working and willing on-ball defender, but has a long way to go to recognize his switching responsibility.

Bonga played the last 17:05 of the game and had a coast to coast dunk that brought LeBron and the starters out of their seats, adding 10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in the second half. At only 18 years of age, fans and almost everyone in the media thought that Bonga would play all season in the G-League. His defense and rebounding may earn him a spot on the regular roster.

Williams had 6 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block, and looked very good against the Warriors reserve big men in the second half, with a positive plus-minus rating (+18). The crazy thing is if Beasley and Stephenson didn’t both get ejected from the game, we would have never seen Williams get enough court time to show his potential, as he’s only averaged 11 minutes over the first five games.

As sad as it is to say, Williams may be the best backup center on the Lakers roster (assuming LeBron rarely plays the small ball 5 position). He has spent his entire college career as a traditional big man, so he understands all the principles on positioning and rotations that Kuzma and Beasley are trying to learn on the fly.

I think it is a question of politics and ego that will prevent Williams from getting a shot to bolster the weakest area on the Lakers, but when he and Bonga were on the floor together, the entire defense picked up and covered some of Svi’s deficiencies.

*You would think that a life long fan like me would be able to get it, but this is different. Just look at the context.

Between 1962 and 1968, the Lakers had two of the five best players in the NBA, but kept losing to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, and often in the seventh game. Bring in Wilt Chamberlin the next year, and the result was the same. After another two years of frustration, Baylor retired the year the Lakers set the record for consecutive NBA wins, and beat arguably the best team of all time, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Winning that first championship against the Knicks was a relief and a time to heal after so many heartbreaking losses during the past decade. As a natural event, it was closer to enduring 10 years of Chinese water torture before the water stopped dripping.

In 1974, the year before the Lakers signed Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Lakers were 30–52. In Kareem’s first year they won 10 more games, but missed the playoffs. Three years later, in 1978, the won 47 games and lost in the Western Conference Semifinals. The next year, they drafted Magic Johnson and won 3 more games that season. We had to wait until Game 6 of the NBA Finals to fully experience Magic’s transcendental greatness in what I think is the greatest individual NBA Finals game performance in the history of Basketball. It was like the hot Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles that could turn a few hot embers into a raging wildfire that would engulf the NBA with 5 titles, and 9 Finals appearances over a 12-year span.

In 1995, the Lakers won 53 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The next year, they signed Shaquille O’Neal and drafted Kobe Bryant, who proceeded to win three more games the next season, and one playoff series. Like a rumbling volcano, it would take another three years for the Lakers to build a second dynasty that would co-rule the augties with the Spurs.

But after watching the Lakers stumble through the dregs of the NBA for the last four years, my only response was to laugh at the disaster once known as Staples Center. It was a “rebuild” period that wasted two years on an injured, washed up superstar, a series of bad coaching hires and some of the worst front office management this side of the Knicks. Instead of rooting for the team to succeed, my only hope was for them to get high draft picks or sign big free agents that would never come.

The Lakers were a joke, and I was all in on finding the humor of a bad situation, writing new lyrics to three Bon Jovi songs:

The good young Lakers draft picks (Randle, Nance, Clarkson, and Russell) held a certain amount of promise but also some terrible flaws, so fans were divided over whether they could become stars or just role players.

Even Brandon Ingram, the supposed next great player looked like a bust as a spindly, hesitant rookie.

And then Magic and Pelinka took over the Lakers. I’ll save their story for another time, but regardless of how much hype and hope they promised, fan expectations have been lowered unlike any time in the history of this franchise.

That’s why the shock of having LeBron James in a Lakers uniform is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The Lakers might not win the title, but they are suddenly relevant. Aside from the Warriors, I don’t think there is one team in the NBA that would want to see LeBron in a playoff series.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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