On their first road trip of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t practice at all. Instead, as they took their training camp on the road to Phoenix, Arizona for two preseason games against the Suns to wrap up their exhibition slate, the Lakers spent their time in the film room, giving their new players a rapid introduction to how this team makes as many adjustments in the dark while watching tape as they do while actually getting out on the floor.
As the Lakers swept through the playoffs last year in the bubble, dropping just five games en route to their 17th championship, it was hard to argue with the approach of saving their legs. It will be even harder to quibble with it this season, when they had just two months between their last game of the NBA Finals and their first preseason game.
One of the results of that truncated break? The Lakers are still very much trying to get their legs under them, which is why Frank Vogel gave the team the day after their final preseason game (Saturday) off, and says they will get back in the gym for “a conditioning-based practice on Sunday” before they “decelerate on Monday and get ready to go for Tuesday night,” their season opener against the Clippers. As they wrap up camp, getting everyone on the same page is still very much a work in progress as the whole roster manages bumps and bruises while integrating the team’s new additions.
“We would want for the season to start a little bit later. Right now we’re trying to find a rhythm,” said Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after the Lakers wrapped up the preseason undefeated (4-0) with their second consecutive comeback win over the Suns, outlining how high a standard this group sets for themselves, how they’re left unsatisfied by seeming perfection.
And their expectations for themselves aren’t dropping, despite the short break, and despite the Lakers understanding that they need to take things slow at times. There has been a perception from some — okay fine, including this idiot, who picked them to finish fourth in the West— that the Lakers, after coming off of their championship and because of how rapidly they’re returning to play, won’t take the regular season as seriously in the early going.
Caldwell-Pope says that isn’t accurate.
“We’re going to approach them as if every game means something,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We don’t want to start slow. I know there’s a target on our back. Everybody is going to come in wanting to beat us. Everybody is going to be ready. I feel like our mindset is that we’re going to be ready as well.
“We got our leaders, LeBron and AD. Their mindset is like, ‘Man, we don’t care if it’s preseason. We want to get out there and get after it,’” Caldwell-Pope continued. “Four days from now the regular season starts, and we’re gonna be ready.”
To a man, most of the Lakers have said basically same thing throughout camp. But there are still signs that despite such bravado, this is a team that understands where its at, and knows that while winning regular season games is great, the more important thing for a group that just won the title and barely had any time off will be staying healthy. James has (understandably) sounded more open to load management than he did last season, and more patient than maybe ever before in his career.
“I feel like for the time we’ve had (in training camp), which hasn’t been that much, we’ve put in the work and gotten better. Obviously we’re not where we want to be long-term, but that’s something that’s absolutely okay, because it’s a long season. It’s a long journey. But I think to the credit of the guys, we’ve gotten better as the days have went on,” James said.
James — who will turn 36 in less than two weeks — says that he’ll consult with his teammates, the coaching staff and training staff, and his longtime personal trainer Mike Mancias about how hard to push it throughout the regular season. But as much as all those voices matter, there will be one he listens to above all of them.
“My body will tell me where I am,” James said. “We’re a marathon team. We understand that we’re not in a sprint. We just gotta get better every day.”
The definition of a marathon is “a long-distance running race, strictly one of 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195 km),” but more colloquially, it means that someone knows that their day-to-day, minute-to-minute chase is less important than getting through the whole task they’re undertaking. James used that word multiple times while speaking with the media on Friday, and has dropped it throughout training camp so much that it might as well be the Lakers’ Sesame Street word of the month.
That mindset showed on the court at times during the two preseason games that James played in, with the whole team looking fairly lackadaisical and a step slow while letting the Suns build up leads. At least until the Lakers, like seasoned long-distance runners, picked their spots to turn on the afterburners and leave their opponents in the dust.
There are few scarier sights in the NBA than the Los Angeles Lakers locking in on defense: pic.twitter.com/V50VONkGMa— Brian Horton-Tucker Morant (@RunTheJules) December 17, 2020
James says that doing so isn’t as paradoxical as it might appear. This team can live in the moment while still understanding that the season will be a test of endurance.
“You can do both,” James insists. “You just want to get better every day. We want to get better every day on the floor, in games, during practices or during film sessions, on the road or at home. Preparing our minds and preparing our bodies for the long haul. So I’ll see how we continue to improve each month, throughout each game, throughout each journey, each step, and then go from there.”
As Lakers head coach, Vogel will be the man in charge of balancing it all. He knows it will be a challenge.
“It’s an unprecedented type of offseason. You not only have the shortest offseason, but you’re coming out of an environment where you were in a bubble for three months, three and a half months, so you have to mentally get past that first, and then you have to start thinking about how to get your body and your mind ready for next season,” Vogel said. “It’s not an offseason where you’re coming into the offseason going ‘I want to add certain things to my game,’ it’s really about trying to refresh your mind, keeping your body in shape, maintaining your skillset and coming back to work.”
Despite that, Vogel still gave every player on the Lakers an individualized plan of things he wanted them to work on during their break if they had time. For Kyle Kuzma, it was instructions to work on shooting off the move more, and we’ve seen how hard fellow young player Talen Horton-Tucker worked to hit the ground running. For some of the Lakers’ veterans, though, Vogel knew they would just need time to get away and rest their minds, as well as any injuries they picked up during the team’s title run. Caldwell-Pope’s candor made it clear he was in the latter group, and that he wasn’t alone, saying the whole team looked “lost a little bit” at points during their final preseason game.
“I don’t want to say it’s going to take a minute to get back in shape, but I am getting winded out there. It’s going to take time to get that rhythm back. Especially game rhythm. Running up and down the court. We had a short offseason to even try and recover from the injuries that we had or bruises that we had from last season,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I feel like we’re just managing it day by day, even in practice or in games. If you’re feeling something, you don’t want to force it. Just take care of yourself.”
That’s where the Lakers’ depth might come in, and could bridge the seeming gap between their comments about taking every part of the regular season seriously while at the same time saying they have to be cautious. On the first day of training camp, Vogel made a vow that whoever was on the floor would play as hard as the Lakers did last year, and maybe that mentality — of everyone who is playing going all out, while everyone who needs to sit taking a break — can be what gets them through.
“We will play every minute of every single regular-season game like it’s the championship because that’s part of what won for us in the playoffs last year is that mindset, that every time we’re on the floor we’re playing harder than our opponent, period, and we’re caring more than our opponent, period. This is just a way of life for us,” Vogel said then. “So we’re not unclear, if I talk about easing into this season it’s really about understanding where guys are from a conditioning standpoint, from an offseason recovery standpoint and just making sure that there is a proper buildup in camp with that.
“But when we get into the season, for sure every game that we play, we’re playing to play harder than our opponent, care more about that night’s victory than our opponent, because that’s the No. 1 habit that you can build throughout the regular season, is the habit of winning, and having that mindset every time we stepped out on the floor (last year) paid dividends for us in the playoffs, and that’s going to be the mindset this year,” Vogel continued. “What I like about it is that doesn’t mean guys are going to have to play 45 minutes a night. We have such great depth that we can balance that out while still having the five guys on the floor competing like hell.”
It won’t be easy to do that during such a short turnaround, but winning championships isn’t supposed to be easy.
“We’re all just trying to make the best of it. We’re going to have some ugly moments early in the season as a result of it,” Vogel admitted Friday. “That’s just the nature of what we’re going through. Nobody’s complaining about it, nobody’s feeling sorry for us. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ll be ready to go and make the best of the early part of the season.”
His players insist they’re ready for the challenge.
“As a team, we have a long way to go, as far as building that chemistry,” Caldwell-Pope said. “But I know with the team we have and the group of guys that’s here, I know it’s going to be as soon as possible that we put it together.”
Whether physically, mentally, or metaphorically, whether it’s in the film room or in a rare session on the practice court, the Lakers will take turns, sprinting towards that goal every day.