LeBron James on verge of NBA history, but Lakers' success hinges on Russell Westbrook

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 26, 2022: LeBron James is interviewed during Lakers Media Day at UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo on Monday, September 26, 2022. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers forward LeBron James said it's "super humbling" and "super cool" to be chasing the NBA's all-time scoring record this season. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

There will be a day this season, luck-willing, when LeBron James sits at a table with a microphone and a Lakers’ backdrop, just like he did Monday, when he will have scored more points than any other player in NBA history.

Trailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by just 1,325 points, strained ligaments, broken bones or bruised tissue will have a better chance of stopping him than 29 other defenses around the NBA.

It could be the story of the season.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people said would probably never be done, it’s just super humbling for myself,” James said. “I think it’s super cool.”

Yet James has never been one to settle for a “super cool” individual achievement, the arguments for his place among the greatest ever always supported by his rings with three different franchises and his annual trips to the NBA Finals with Cleveland and Miami.

But on the eve of James’ 20th season in the NBA, those soon-to-be-scored historic points weren’t on anyone’s mind. Instead, it was questions about whether those points would come in meaningful games, the Lakers faced with fixing the flaws from last season's team that finished 11th in the West.

On paper, the Lakers look to be a team light on shooting and size on the wings. In a 180-degree pivot from a year ago, they filled the edges around their stars with youth and athleticism. With Darvin Ham now coaching the team, they’ve prioritized the kind of tenacity perfectly embodied by Patrick Beverley.

There was some of the standard media-day news — Dennis Schroder is dealing with some visa issues, Lonnie Walker IV (ankle) and Troy Brown Jr. (back) are banged up, and Kendrick Nunn (knee) has been cleared for full contact. Mostly Monday was about the big-picture stuff that can be edited down to three words — Can this work?

Russell Westbrook, the team’s signature acquisition a year ago, is back — but no one has made it seem like that was the perfect outcome to the summer.

For the Lakers, who open training camp Tuesday in Las Vegas, Westbrook’s $47-million contract and the team’s lack of tradeable assets have made moving the former most valuable player in a deal a significant challenge. In a general sense, the Lakers haven’t found a trade they feel improves them enough to necessitate shipping off the lone first-round picks they can trade under current league rules.

It’s left the Lakers to deal with the same issues they faced last season. Can Russ “be Russ” within Ham’s system any better than he could with Frank Vogel, James and Anthony Davis a year ago? He wouldn’t say.

“I be myself every single day when I wake up,” he said. “Basketballwise, I'll continue doing what's best for the team, doing whatever that is asked of me, I'll continue doing that.”

Lakers forward Anthony Davis and coach Darvin Ham chat during media day.
Forward Anthony Davis and head coach Darvin Ham were among the Lakers who spoke highly of Russell Westbrook's approach and commitment during the offseason. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Davis said he heard Westbrook’s end-of-season comments about not being allowed to be himself, and he reiterated that he thought it was still the best path for success.

I think it just takes time,” Davis said. “We were able to sit down and talk this offseason just about what works, what didn't work and hopefully we can, all the things that didn't work, kind of figure it out. Obviously, new system, new coach, that always changes things as well, so I'm interested to see what happens. But I think all of us have a chip on our shoulder.” 

Still, a move is not off the table.

“Let me be abundantly clear: We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract. So, of course, we will do everything we can, picks included to make deals to give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end,” general manager Rob Pelinka said. “He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But …

“You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks,” Pelinka explained. “So if you make that trade, and I’m not talking about one particular player on our team, but it has to be the right one. You only get one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decision on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

In the meantime, Westbrook has impressed some executives with his attitude — with Ham making it clear that he’s challenged Westbrook to make an impact on the defensive end.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook points to someone during media day.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook has been challenged by new coach Darvin Ham to make a bigger impact this season on defense. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

One other easy way for the Lakers to get better would be to have James and Anthony Davis available for work. Both struggled with injuries last season, severely limiting a ceiling that was already lowered because of the flawed and aging roster.

The Lakers said they’re committed to doing what they can to keep James and Davis as healthy as possible, including minutes and schedule management.

“We don't need Bron or AD playing playoff minutes in October, November, December,” Ham said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.