Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James didn’t become arguably the greatest player of all time by resting on his laurels. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that — even in the midst of the Lakers’ strongest start in years — he’s still thinking about ways he can get better.
The first inkling of James’ focus on improvement from the other night came literally seconds after the Lakers had finished beating the San Antonio Spurs, as during James’ televised walk-off interview with Mike Trudell of Spectrum Sportsnet, he was focused on ways he can raise his level of play:
“I’m getting better and better at the point guard position. Just trying to know where my guys are, and put them in a position to just be able to catch and shoot, catch and lay the ball up. Just making they’re as comfortable as possible out there, and Coach Vogel is allowing me to run the show.
“Tonight I was good at times, I wasn’t so good at times. I had a couple of careless turnovers, didn’t shoot the ball particularly well from the field (and) struggled at the free-throw line, but you’ve just got to do other things to be able to help your team win and I was able to do that.”
The turnover James mentions are a real thing, as he’s currently tied for the sixth-most turnovers per game in the NBA (4.2). But if you look at that list, it’s mostly populated with best players in the NBA. To some degree there is a creativity tax when a player is responsible for as much on offense as James is, so while he could obviously lower his turnovers a hair, they sort of come with the territory of how many incredible passes he has created while leading the league in assists (11.2 per game).
James will probably be able to get even better with ball security after having a handful of extra games for himself and his new teammates to acclimate to playing together under head coach Frank Vogel, but the offensive end hasn’t been the only part of his game he wants to improve, either. James also talked to reporters after beating the Spurs about what has fueled his renewed defensive focus (via Tania Ganguli of The Los Angeles Times):
James was asked after Sunday’s game to explain how he succeeds in keeping his defensive engagement high. He attributed his improved defense from last season to this season to being healthy. James said that even when he returned to play last season after missing time with a groin strain, the injury lingered.
“For me, I just take the challenge,” he said. “I love being challenged. Coach challenged me. A.D. challenged me. I challenged myself. I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back [after being injured last year]. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”
James has been really good on defense to start the year, and while the metrics point to the team being better on that end when he sits than they are when he’s in the game, a lot of that has to do with how small of a sample size we are dealing with right now, and the fact that James and the starters are playing against better players than the Lakers’ second units have. For anyone who has watched the games, it’s been obvious that James has been as active, engaged and focused on defense as the Lakers said he would be during training camp.
Is that sustainable, long-term? James seems to want it to be, and with the presence of Anthony Davis easing his burden offensively and pushing him on defense, maybe it is. Still, at age 34, James and the Lakers should also be careful and make sure he’s only expending just enough effort to still remain at his peak entering the postseason.
Still, bigger-picture, James pushing himself this much so publicly can really only be a good thing for the Lakers. If he’s holding himself to such a high standard, it’s pretty much impossible for the rest of the roster to not hold themselves just as accountable, which is exactly what results in the type of eager, aggressive defense we’ve seen the Lakers play so far while becoming the best team in the league on that end.
And if James really can get even a smidge better in all the areas he talks about, this team may have another level left it can hit. If that’s actually the case, the rest of the league will need to watch out.