ORLANDO (Florida) • LeBron James took it personally when he failed to guide the Los Angeles Lakers to the play-offs last year, prolonging their six-year drought.
It was a blow to the three-time Most Valuable Player’s pride, having previously made eight successive National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals appearances and 14 straight trips to the post-season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat.
Last summer, he vowed to do better, embarking on a charm offensive to recruit fellow All-Star Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans along with battle-tested veterans like Danny Green and Dwight Howard.
Others like Markieff Morris joined later in the season, encouraged by the signs of progress the team were showing.
James’ first aim was achieved in March when the Lakers qualified for the play-offs for the first time since 2013, but he was not satisfied then.
They were installed as among the championship favourites when the season restarted in July in the “bubble” at Disney World, and the team have so far lived up to their billing.
After a 119-96 rout of the Houston Rockets on Saturday, eliminating their opponents four games to one, James declared that he owed it to the fans after sealing the side’s first Western Conference finals berth in a decade.
On ensuring that they will match up with either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Denver Nuggets, the three-time NBA champion said: “I know what my name, my stature, and what I’ve done in this league comes with whenever I decide to join a franchise.
“I know what my name comes with. And it comes with winning. I take that responsibility to the utmost than anything.”
The star forward now has the opportunity to help the Lakers gain their 17th championship, equalling the league record held by rivals Boston Celtics, and he is desperate for one of the most storied franchises in the game to regain their stature.
“It’s the reason I wanted to be a part of this franchise is to take them back to a place they were accustomed to being. And that’s competing for a championship,” said James, who paced his team with 29 points. “It’s an honour for me to wear the purple and gold (shirt) and for us to just try to continue the legacy and just play great basketball for our fans.
“Every game is a learning experience for us. Every game is another opportunity for us to get better. We want to continue to build.”
While the Lakers go from strength to strength, the Rockets will spend the rest of the close season wondering if they can ever reach the NBA Finals, in which they last starred 25 years ago, again.
Houston, who were led by a game-high 30 points from James Harden, lost their fourth straight game, leading to speculation that coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract, which expires at the end of the campaign, will not be renewed.
Hinting that his time was probably up, he said: “We’ll see what happens. I had four years.”