May 23, 2024

LeBron James sat back in his locker, wearily looking around at the type of nondescript visiting locker room that dots the NBA.

It was early in the 2022-23 season, but it didn’t feel that way.

The problems of the previous season, when the pieces never fit together and the defeats piled up unbelievably quick, hadn’t been solved.

The Lakers were losing — all the time — and James seemed spent.

“The whole thing, trying to figure out what we were going to do, was exhausting,” Austin Reaves told The Times. “And it was exhausting for everybody. And especially for a guy like him, who has kinda known how things were going to go throughout his career, this was so up in the air.

“And it mentally drains you more than anything.”

But as the Lakers enter this season, James’ 21st in the NBA, the vibes are completely different. The team has a clear identity, a pathway to follow, an infrastructure to count on and reasonable championship expectations.

All of it has been like a triple shot of espresso for James and the Lakers, who open the season Tuesday in Denver against the reigning champion Nuggets.

“He came back and it’s like, I’ve said 18 in the past, but now he acts like he’s 16 [years old] now,” Reaves said. “He might be Benjamin Button.”

The biggest reason why everyone inside the Lakers organization is so excited about this season is that they don’t need James to actually be aging in reverse. There’s a belief that the team built a roster that’s more talented and more balanced than either of the last two seasons. And it sets things up for the Lakers to not need James to dominate on a nightly basis — but like he did in the playoffs, allow for him to pick his spots while his teammates share the load.

“I like our chances better than anybody’s,” Darvin Ham said this preseason. “It’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done. Anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easy. We understand that.”

Ham, who has never lacked for confidence as the Lakers’ head coach, even after starting 2-10 last season, said he’s seen the Lakers quickly mesh this training camp. The group has built on top of a trip to the Western Conference finals, giving them the continuity they badly lacked while getting swept by the Nuggets.

“Winning has a way of connecting you at the hip. But so does losing. And the way we lost and how tough those four games were, I just think it lit a fire in everyone and we got a glimpse of how good we can be in a short period,” Ham said. “And then you give us an offseason where we go and add additional pieces that are going to be key pieces for us and in our mix and in our program. And then the leadership from Bron and [Anthony Davis], their wisdom that they’ve been able to impart on the younger guys, the new guys, the guys that are returning and how that has been like Crazy Glue.

“You can already see the joy, the high spirit, the positive energy.”

Of course, threats to that lurk just ahead.

The West is stacked with teams that share the same belief as the Lakers, the season opening with games at Denver and home against Phoenix, two teams definitely built to win a championship. The Golden State Warriors added a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul. In the East, Milwaukee and Boston made major trades to cement themselves in the top tier of contention. Plenty of other teams are dangerous enough to disrupt any predictions.

Before training camp, James said he’d only worry about that once it became time to compete. Well, that’s here now.

“I don’t really give my energy to the rest of the league until it’s time to compete with them and across from them,” James said. “My energy is solely towards this team every day and how we can get better every day. How we cannot skip a step every day. And just because of how the way we finished last year, doesn’t mean it’s going to apply to this year. This is the first time, since the 20-21 run that we’re returning a team. Besides that run, we’ve been a revolving door, we’ve had a lot of turnover. So I’m excited about us returning our core and then bringing in a lot of very, very, very good players that can help us continue to roll in what we was able to do.”

As with any season, the health of James and Davis will be crucial. Davis played 56 games last season — the most he played as a Lakers since his first year in Los Angeles. And James failed to play 60 games for the third straight season, this time being slowed by a torn foot ligament.

Lakers forwards LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis bump chests as they  celebrate a basket.

Lakers forwards LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis bump chests as they celebrate a basket during the playoffs last season.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

If things were the way they’ve been the last two seasons, one wrong step leading to a missed month would’ve meant doom. The Lakers, though, are confident that the way they’re built means things can be different this time.

“I don’t know this for a fact, but think there’s just a feeling of trust too. I feel like he understands and trusts what we have,” Reaves said of James. “When in previous years, obviously my first two, it was so up in the air. … We never had a good feeling as a collective group,” Reaves said. “But bringing back the whole, basically, core that went to the Western Conference finals. … I looked at him the other day and was just like, ‘Hey bro. We got a chance.’ He was like, ‘Maannn.’

“That was all I needed to hear. There’s, from what I can tell, just that sense of belief in what we have.”

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