PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.
It will be a happening.
It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.
Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.
“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”
The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.
“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”
James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.
“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”
The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.
The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.
“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”
The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.
“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.