Lakers forward LeBron James, right, drives to the basket in front of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lauri Markkanen during the first quarter Friday at Staples Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Frank Vogel wants to build, and Friday, he got back his most prized material.
LeBron James returned to the lineup against Cleveland with the Lakers focused on how their defense can go from being one of the NBA’s worst back to one of the best.
The process won’t be easy, and without James, the blueprint is probably useless. But even with him, six games into this NBA season, it’s hard to view anything the Lakers are doing as more than conceptual.
“We’re like building a house. You know, you’re building a house or you’re putting on an addition, you got all these construction workers in your house and it’s a pain in the ass and there’s plastic up and sawdust and it’s a pain in the ass,” Vogel colorfully described Friday morning. “But you keep saying to yourself, ‘When this is done, it’s going to be great.’ You know what I mean? That’s where we’re at right now.
“Like, it’s frustrating to see where we’re at, but I know where it’s going to get to. And we’re excited about that.”
And maybe if this was one project, the Lakers could handle all the clutter — the tools scattered on the floor and the paint splattered on the ground. But that’s not where this team is. This is multiple job sites, all behind schedule and over budget.
Lakers teammates Anthony Davis, left, and Russell Westbrook celebrate after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ricky Rubio shoots over Lakers guard Russell Westbrook in the first quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
It’s not one problem. It’s all of them. And it’s going to be a lot of work.
Even when things were going well in Friday’s 113-101 win over the Cavaliers at Staples Center — like the Lakers giving up just 16 points in the fourth quarter — it mostly looked too hard and too inconsistent.
It also was a trait in the Lakers’ first two wins, needing to go late with Memphis before outlasting San Antonio in overtime.
They’ve struggled to stop penetrating guards. They are slow on rotations and lazily get beaten on backdoor cuts. They get killed on the glass, giving teams second, third and sometimes fourth chances. They give up uncontested dunks. They foul more than almost anyone else in the NBA.
They’re a mess on offense, firing as many passes to the empty spaces on the court as to the ones they occupy. And even though they make a lot of threes, they miss a lot of free throws. They play with the spacing of an overstuffed sock drawer.
Other than that …
What makes it all so frustrating is the talent that’s stacked at the top of the roster, four of the NBA’s top 75 players ever (and one just on the outside in Dwight Howard) all wearing purple and gold.
The good can flash — stops leading to scores and the Lakers looking closer to Vogel’s vision for what a group with this talent can achieve. And then, after a handful of possessions, it usually disappears.
At least James returned after missing the previous two games with a sore ankle, an injury that essentially ended his season — and the Lakers’ — a year ago. James scored a game-high 26 points despite missing nine of 10 threes. Carmelo Anthony made six of eight from deep to score 24 off the bench.
Things in the first half Friday could’ve been much, much worse, when they fought back to force a tie. Same in the third quarter, when they needed a late 12-0 run to snag a three-point lead heading to the fourth.
After leading by six early, they quickly fell behind 11, their turnovers mounting into the teens as the Cavaliers surged behind former USC star Evan Mobley, comfortably holding his own against Anthony Davis — a player to whom he’s often been compared.
The Staples Center crowd, sensing the Lakers needed help, chanted “Let’s go, Lakers” midway through the second quarter. It was more a sign of desperation than it was earned by their performance.
The Lakers, though, did make shots, staying within range so they were able to tie the game by halftime thanks to a 6-0 run triggered by some good luck. Mobley missed a dunk, and with the basket still swaying, Colin Sexton missed the putback, allowing the Lakers to run.
The Lakers insist that the seeds of greatness are there.
“The team that we have here, we’re going to have a great season this year,” Vogel said before the game.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.