It might seem counterintuitive, but I firmly believe that only those who have actually done something truly know how hard it is to do that thing. Yes, failing at something gives you experience in how hard something is by not accomplishing it, but that gets you no understanding of what it takes to actually, you know, do it.
I relate this to all aspects of life, but especially to sports. And, more specifically, to winning at the highest level.
One of my fundamental sports mantras is that winning — and I mean winning at any level, but especially winning a title — is hard. It’s a simple statement, but, to me, is the ultimate truth. People often look at me, a Lakers fan, and wonder why would I think that? When I root for a team that’s won 16 championships, including 10 since 1980 and been to nearly double that amount of Finals over that same period, you might come to the conclusion I would be someone who believes the opposite.
Nope. Seeing teams try and then actually win (especially after seeing multiple teams try and not) has given me an extra appreciation for all that actually needs to go right to be the last team standing. It’s hard, you guys. Really effing hard.
LeBron James? He knows. That “not one, not two, not three, not four…” championship promise turned into two in four trips to the Finals.
And now he’s on the Lakers. So, what is he thinking joining this team? ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked him just that:
— ESPN (@espn) July 30, 2018
First, just to fact-check LeBron really quickly, the Heat actually went 45-37 the year before he joined them, not 35-47. That latter record is, however, what the Lakers posted this past season. And, for the record, the Cavs went 33-49 the season before LeBron returned to Cleveland for his second stint. So, he’s familiar with joining a losing team and helping to build them back up to a championship team.
Which is good. Because that’s the challenge he’s speaking of to Rachel Nichols in the clip above. And it’s the challenge — at least part of it — he indeed does face with this Lakers team.
So, LeBron knows what that’s like. He also knows what it’s like to come to a place as the conquering hero, the best player in the world who is expected to be able to lift a team, almost by himself, to the pinnacle of the sport.
But let’s not mistake that narrative for what his history actually is. When he went to Miami he was joining a super team with his buddies Dwyane and Chris; when he returned to the Cavs, Kyrie was there and Love was immediately traded for.
There are no such luxuries waiting for him in or arriving in short order to Los Angeles. He has, in my opinion, a very talented group of young players and a motley crew of talented (with their respective warts) veterans. But he has no current All-Star waiting in the wings. Much less an All-NBA caliber player.
What there are, though, are expectations. Expectations from fans who are hungry from 5 years of playoff fasting; expectations from analysts who know too well how good LeBron is and hold him to the standard of being one of best two (or so) players of all time and the guaranteed playoff spots (and, over the past 8 seasons, Finals trips) which come with that; expectations from himself to continue to perform with “championship habits” regardless of results.
And while LeBron can downplay those expectations all he wants, narratives are rarely so easily controlled. Those who follow the Lakers know this better than anyone.
It’s one thing to take a team from the bottom of the standings to the top. That, in and of itself, is one of the most difficult things (if not the most difficult) to accomplish in sports. But is another entirely to do that for this specific organization, in this specific city, with this specific group of fans/front office/owner/etc. There is history here.
And while he surely embraces that, there are few times, if ever, LeBron has been in a situation where his own individual brand has been less significant than that of the team he plays for. The argument can be made, and probably successfully, that this is now true with him joining the Lakers.
This is the true challenge LeBron faces. Is he ready? We’re about to find out. I can’t wait to see how it goes.