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What does success look like for LeBron's Lakers - NBA

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-09-28 21:00:08

In the moments after the Game 1 loss in the NBA Finals in May, a combination of rage, frustration and disappointment led LeBron James to explode in the visitors' locker room in Oakland and punch a whiteboard, cracking a bone in his hand.

James' teammates and coaches had never seen James quite in that state. It was an extreme example of his intense competitive spirit. Even though his Cleveland Cavaliers were heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors, James very much believed that he could lead the team to an upset.

This is James' personality, it's who he is. He plays to win and he competes at the highest level regardless of the circumstance. As he has said on numerous occasions: "Any team that has me has a chance."

When he doesn't win, it can devastate him. Some of the darkest times in his career have been after Finals losses. His euphoria in 2012, when he got his first title after several Finals defeats, and then in 2016, when he won in Cleveland, were a result of shedding the pain as much as victory.

In the weeks after this past NBA Finals, James and his friends and family had deep discussions on how he'd psychologically manage a move to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are on a different timeline toward a championship than any team James had been on for more than a decade. Even before his eight straight NBA Finals appearances, he was on back-to-back 60-win teams that were upset before the Finals. For the 2018-19 season, Vegas has the Lakers' win total pegged at 48.

"Ad nauseum" was how one of the people involved in the decision-making described the frequency of the talks about how different this journey would feel. James' goals, definition of success and management of failure have to evolve. And those who know him best know it's going to be an ongoing challenge to accept his new circumstances. After all, the Lakers now have him.

"I'm not a very patient guy, but I understand that I have to be," James said this week. "I've got to be patient with myself too because this is a new start for me."

James was answering a question about Lakers' expectations but also repeating a mantra in some respects. Known for posting quotes in his locker and writing reminders on his shoes, perhaps his own quote on the matter would be useful for him to refer to as the next six months unfold.

For those who really know James, one issue is this: The way James feels about his situation in July is often different than the way he feels in December. This has played out over and over in his career as teammates, coaches and friends can verify. His nature sometimes makes it hard for him to accept anything else than excellence, especially when it's outside his control.

In 2014, as an example, James wrote in his July letter in Sports Illustrated: "Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach."

By that December, James had grown frustrated with his young teammates and his new coach and he ached for changes to the roster to make the team immediately more competitive. The changes came and the Cavs made the Finals and nearly pulled off an upset. After all, the Cavs had him.

This is not meant to be a gotcha point on James talking again about patience with a new team as he now is wearing purple and gold. It's just to show that James' inner fire burns bright and it typically grows only hotter as each season unfolds.

"I'm not a very patient guy but I understand that I have to be."
LeBron James

James knows this all, of course. He knows there are going to be times this season with the Lakers when he'll feel like punching another whiteboard. Especially with five players on the roster who are rookies or in their second seasons and a number of veterans who have reputations for volatile play.

"We have to take our bumps and our bruises," James said. "There's going to be good times and there's going to be bad times."

When James made up his mind on the Lakers, he and his team decided to accept a four-year contract (the final year is his option). This is the longest contract he has signed since 2010 when he went to Miami. He signed three shorter deals in Cleveland.

According to sources close to James, one of the reasons he decided to commit long-term was to set the tone -- for himself as much as the organization -- that he was going to embrace a process he knew the Lakers were going to have to undergo. Even at age 33, James also believed he had multiple years left in his prime and believed it was a calculated risk that the Lakers could construct a contending team. Whether or not he'll be able to stick to that plan is to be seen. But he went into it with eyes wide open.

Several times this week, James has been challenged to try to set parameters for the Lakers' season. James has declined to do so, knowing his words could be used against him later. A week before training camp at a season-ticket holders event, Lakers coach Luke Walton tried to be measured in a response about the Lakers' expectations this season and ending up talking himself into saying he believed the Lakers would be a championship contender by the end of the season.

James is going to try to avoid putting himself in the same corner. But what he says and what he feels are two different things. He will try as hard as he can to focus on the process and manage perhaps the most challenging season he has had since he reached NBA adulthood.

But whatever drama takes place inside the Lakers team during this season, the one within James could be most interesting of all.

"I don't expect anything. The unknown is what to expect," James said. "You work for what you want."

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