Los Angeles — After the Los Angeles Lakers dropped a forgettable game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night — and some would argue during — most eyes had already shifted ahead to Christmas Day, when LeBron James will lead his new team to the Bay Area to take on his foes for nearly half of the last decade: The Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors’ 23-11 record so far this season doesn’t fully paint the picture of just how much further along Golden State is than the Lakers (19-14), and because of that, James says that even with him on the roster, it’s not fair to compare the two teams just yet.
“We can’t measure ourselves versus them. This team has won three out of four championships in the last four years,” James said. “We just need to continue to get better. I think we took a little step backwards today, so want to try to get better on Tuesday. It’s not a measuring stick for us.”
James’ assessment may be somewhat self-serving in that it helps alleviate a whole heap of pressure off of his shoulders to deliver Lakers fans a win for Christmas, but he’s also not wrong. Even as much as the Warriors have struggled — and that term is used loosely, they still rank first in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency — they are still a much more solidified team than the Lakers, who are in the process of learning how to best fit with James.
Plus, despite starting center JaVale McGee being cleared to resume basketball activities following a bout with pneumonia, he still may not suit up on Tuesday. The same goes for Tyson Chandler, who missed the Grizzlies loss with back spasms. If the Lakers have to roll with Ivica Zubac as their only true center along with a bunch of unideal small-ball lineups, things could go south quickly in the Bay.
Still, the rest of James’ Lakers teammates — or at least the ones who returned from last year’s roster — are just excited to have a real chance to beat the Warriors this time now that they have James on their side.
”There’s no pressure,” said Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “Right now I feel like we’ve got great leadership [and] some added pieces that can help us get over that hump.”
“I just know we have a better chance to win. We have a better chance of competing with those guys the way we play, and the way we run and the way we defend,” added Lakers forward Brandon Ingram. “They pretty much have the same players. They’ve gotten a little bit better, a little bit more experienced, but it’s just us trying to follow another game plan and get the victory.”
Josh Hart, who was also around for the Lakers’ four losses to the Warriors last year, said “yeah” he thinks the team is a challenger to the Warriors in the West, but isn’t trying to think too far ahead yet.
“We’re taking it a day at a time and a game at a time and just trying to get better,” Hart said.
If that sounds like James talking, it’s probably not an accident. When James joined the Cavaliers, he talked constantly about how the team wasn’t ready to contend yet and couldn’t skip steps. The Lakers are at the same stage and will be going up against one of the best teams ever, which is why James thinks that even though this game is being hyped up and put on one of the marquee days of the NBA year, people shouldn’t overreact to the lead-up to the contest, or the outcome of it.
“I don’t look at it as a special matchup. We’re a team that’s trying to get better and better every week, and trying to get better and better every month. They’re a team that’s trying to figure out how they can win another championship,” James said. “That’s their goal every night.
“That’s our ultimate goal but there are some things we need to do in between to get to the point where we can start discussing a championship,” James continued. “But we want to have championship habits.”
The best way to build those might be against teams competing for championships, so maybe the game against the Warriors will be worth tuning in for after all, even despite James’ attempts to downplay it.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.