Have the Lakers failed LeBron James?
Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we’ll delve into some of the league’s biggest storylines to try to determine if the trends are based more on fact or fiction.
When eight minutes were left to finish their game against the Atlanta Hawks On what would have been LeBron James’ 38th birthday, the Los Angeles Lakers seemed poised to squander another remarkable performance from the aging legend. James had given them an absurdly efficient 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 32 minutes, but the Hawks had tied. Trotting back on defense and running the perimeter on offense, he seemed like the rest of us resigned to the inevitability that another brilliant effort would result in defeat.
He then pulled up from 25 feet to drill a 3-pointer Jalen Johnsonwho was two months shy of his second birthday when James made his NBA debut in October 2003. When Atlanta cut the deficit to one, James threw a pass through three defenders for Thomas Bryant for a tray. James replied to Bring on Young floated another 25-footer, giving the Lakers a two-possession lead inside four minutes.
For good measure, James added a layup through the entire Hawks defense, as well as a free throw. Then he drove for a single defensive guard Dejounte Murrayand when John Collins found him on the block, James blew past him as well, continuing under the basket for a five-footer on the other side. He iced the game with two more free throws as the Lakers prevailed, 130-121, to avoid falling eight games below .500.
James finished one assist short of a triple-double of 47 points on 67% shooting from the field, the most dominant game in NBA history by someone his age. He followed that up two nights later with 43 points, 11 boards and six assists in a win over the Charlotte Hornets, and again the Lakers needed every ounce of their production to survive a game against the worst team in the NBA. The burden James still carries is heavy.
“I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level, from a team point of view.” he told reporters several days earlier, after a double-digit loss to one of his former teams, the Miami Heat. “I want to still be able to compete for championships, because I know what I can still bring to any ball club with the right pieces…
“I’m a winner and I want to win. i want to win and give me a chance to still compete for championships. … Playing basketball at this level just to play basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore. So, we’ll see what happens. We’ll see how fresh my mind stays over the next two years.”
This was a cry for help: from his teammates, the front office and the entire NBA. Nothing new for James’ experience, but this one felt more weight, because he only has so much winning basketball left.
On the one hand, it’s hard to feel too bad for James, since his L.A. stint is his own doing. He encouraged the Lakers to do their disastrous business Russell Westbrook. He signed a two-year, $97.1 million extension over the summer that prevents him from changing teams this season, knowing full well that the roster is no better than the one that didn’t qualify for the play-in tournament last season He chose this.
On the other hand, James was facing his basketball mortality for the first time in his career when he signed the extension. His groin, ankles, core and left knee are feeling his 64,218 minutes of running. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the first player to cross that threshold in 1988, he was making $2 million as the fourth option on a loaded Lakers team that was in the process of winning a second straight title. Try turning down a $100 million golden parachute when you have no idea how much longer you can work.
To be sure, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka assured James that they would make every effort to put a winning product around him, and Anthony Davis hasn’t been around long enough for the front office to decide if it’s worth mortgaging the remainder assets of the decade to add more talent around him. If only Pelinka had been so cautious when it came to the Westbrook trade, or really any decision he’s made since the Lakers won their bubble championship. The team’s job is to tell the superstar that his team building strategy is bad, and the Lakers were too shy or too wrong to correct him.
So here we are, watching James chase Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record for a team three wins shy of 10th place and three quality players without making any noise in the postseason. He plays basketball just to play basketball, and he’s doing it at a level that could help a lot of other teams win a championship.
what a waste
It would be less so if this was a novelty act, but theirs is a masterclass in stagecraft. Twenty seasons into his career, he is averaging 29-8-7 on 58.6% true shooting, essentially no dip in his career average. James has the best statistical resume in NBA history, and somehow he’s still putting up numbers at the same rate as when it was a 28-year regular season streak. i NBA Finals MVP.
James has 37,903 career points, 484 shy of Abdul-Jabbar’s record. If James stays healthy, at this rate he’ll break the record sometime between the trade deadline and the All-Star break. He will soon make the 40,000 point, 10,000 rebound and 10,000 assist club. (None are even in the 30,000-7,000-7,000 club).
To put it into perspective, Luka Doncic he has averaged 28.7 points per game since inexplicably falling to the third overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, better than James averaged over five seasons (27.3). However, Doncic will likely surpass James’ pace for more than 1,000 points by the end of this season, as the latter only missed a total of 19 games in his first five years. (Doncic has missed more than that in his last two seasons alone.)
If Doncic maintains his career scoring average i plays 72 games per season (his career-high to date), will reach 40,000 points in 65 appearances in 2037-38, his 20th NBA season, at age 39.
Even Doncic can’t imagine that happening.
“If you tell me, there’s no way,” he told reporters this week“because I’m not playing that much.”
James’ combination of longevity and consistency at the highest level seems impossible to recreate. At age 17, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title “The Chosen One,” and he still lives up to his promise 21 years later. However, the Lakers (as reported) dares to blame James for his failures.
Jeanie Buss took over ownership of the Lakers in 2013 and gave Kobe Bryant her own $48 million early retirement gift. They missed the playoffs every season until James decided he wanted to live in Los Angeles, drafted Davis, and the two won a title together. They lost a first-round playoff series the following year and are now headed for a second consecutive lottery appearance. The management of the team has been a debacle.
The Lakers have their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks to deal right now, which are exceptionally valuable as the rest of the league knows the likelihood of the Lakers getting stuck at the end of this decade. This coming summer, they can add a 2023 selection from the New Orleans Pelicans in any package and/or they can create something close to a salary cap hit for what will be a fairly shallow free agency pool.
The Lakers have options, just trust Pelinka, whose track record since overpaying for Davis is abominable, to save James’ swan song. Either that, or they’ll have to trade James’ new contract, just to give him a chance to win somewhere else, because he shouldn’t have to endure another season like this.
Without James, the Lakers would have been operating as the worst team in the NBA for a decade. Damn right, they owe him everything they have to make sure he doesn’t play basketball just to play basketball because it’s not like you can trust him to rebuild a contender when he isn’t.
Determination: done The Lakers have failed LeBron James.
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