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LeBron James ready to pace and race in year 16

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Are the Lakers ready to contend with LeBron? (1:54)

Dave McMenamin looks at how much better the Lakers are with LeBron James, but suggests they need a little "more magic" to get to a championship. (1:54)

It was midway through the first quarter of LeBron James' first preseason game with the Los Angeles Lakers when Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap used a drop step to elude the newly minted purple-and-gold paragon and loft the ball through the net.

Rather than dwell on his failed defensive execution, James immediately shifted his sights toward the other end of the court and sprinted up the left wing to catch an outlet pass that Rajon Rondo zipped to near midcourt. It was an inbounds pass thrown in such haste that Rondo didn't even bother dragging both feet out of bounds before he delivered it, floating one of his size-13 sneaks over the painted S in "America's Finest City" that decorates the baseline at San Diego's Valley View Casino Center.

James made one dribble with his left hand, taking him from half court to just inside the 3-point line, where he floated a pass to Brandon Ingram, who had been hustling down the right wing as soon as Rondo put the ball into play.

The possession lasted all of four seconds, and while Denver's Will Barton broke up James' feed to Ingram at the rim to prevent the bucket, it covered 94 feet.

Many NBA teams talk about running and using pace and space to define their identity -- hoping to execute early offense before the opponent can set its defense -- but to truly be about it requires recognition and discipline.

It's one thing to get a steal or grab a long defensive rebound and run because you find yourself with a three-on-two or two-on-one advantage and the defense on its heels. It's another thing entirely to force the issue and put the opposing team in a compromising position just after they've scored, as the Lakers' mad dash after the Millsap bucket portrayed.

The 2018-19 Lakers, with all of their fresh parts and mix of young and old, intend to come out of the gates running. Literally.

Throughout training camp, X's marked the spots deep in the corners -- taped on the court by Lakers coach Luke Walton -- as a reminder of where he wanted his wings speeding to when the ball changes possession.

"If the ball is going through the net, we have a specific player we want to take it out and everyone goes," Walton said. "If it's a deflection or rebound, and you're the designated player, then if you get it, push it yourself, and if you were the point guard, you get out."

Translation: There are multiple players Walton is comfortable with initiating the break -- sometimes it will be Ingram throwing the lob to James, for instance -- but the coach wants everyone able to switch from digging in on defense to full-throttle running on offense without a second thought.

"It's all about the initial thrust," Walton said. "First three steps we've talked about ... it's that initial thrust coming off getting stops and deflections that's most important."

Perhaps even more important is getting James on board with the plan. The Lakers have intentionally built a team different from the roster of specialists James played with in Miami and Cleveland, as ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst reported over the summer.

The Lakers view this season's team as a collection of multidimensional playmakers who are fit to run whether James is pressing the ball or filling the lane.

James, however, is in his 16th season. He turns 34 in December. While he has managed his back pain in recent years to stave off Father Time, he's still the same guy who said this about his aching body four years ago:

"I have 41,000 minutes in my career, including the playoffs," James said in December 2014, his first season of his second stint with the Cavaliers. "You drive that car in the wintertime and see what happens."

Of course, Southern California winters are easier to contend with than Northeast Ohio's frozen months, but his odometer has now rolled past 54,000 minutes.

Yet James seems supportive of the plan to play with pace. The Lakers ranked second in the NBA in fast-break points per game last season with 17.5, trailing only the Golden State Warriors (19.3). When a reporter asked about L.A.'s struggles from deep last season (the Lakers were 29th in the league in 3-point percentage at 34.5 percent), James used the transition numbers as ammunition.

"It's fine," he said. "They were top-five in fast-break points, too. So, things that you don't do well, you make up for another way. You always find a way."

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0:17

Lakers' ball movement leads to McGee dunk

LeBron James lasers a pass to Rajon Rondo, who quickly gets it to JaVale McGee near the rim for a two-handed dunk.

L.A. hopes to become even more lethal on the break with James in the fold. Individually, James scored 343 fast-break points last season, third most in the NBA, and shot a ridiculous 71 percent on shots in transition.

"If he gets the loose ball and pushes himself, he's a problem to deal with, from his playmaking to his ability to get to the rim," Walton said of James. "If he doesn't get it and he's open on the throw-ahead [pass] where he's at half-court, if he gets it coming downhill, then you're impossible to stop."

His efficiency can take the Lakers to another level. When James was on the court last season, the Cavs averaged 1.39 points per chance in transition, according to Second Spectrum, which would have ranked No. 1 in the league. The Lakers, while their total transition numbers were stellar, averaged only 1.24 points per chance in transition, good for 24th.

In other words, because of turnovers and shots they failed to convert, things didn't always run smoothly when the Lakers ran. However, when James and the Cavs ran -- albeit less frequently -- they were the most effective running team in the league.

"It don't matter for me," James said. "I can play any style. I can run with the best of them. I can jump with the best of them. I can slow down with the best of them. I can play any game. Whatever the game endures, I'm able to adapt to however the game is going.

"So, even with the miles that I've had in my career, I can still -- I can do pretty much anything."