The Lakers are a dumpster fire not even LeBron James can extinguish

It’s looking like LeBron James in the NBA playoffs isn’t the forgone conclusion we’ve come to presume.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Clippers, 113-105, slumping to a ho-hum 30-34 record, six games adrift of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 18 games left in the regular season. Not only will James almost certainly fail to extend his preposterous streak of eight consecutive NBA finals appearances, it’s looking more and more likely that he’ll miss the playoffs altogether for the first time since the 2004-05 season, when he was a 20-year-old in his second year. The much-ballyhooed #LakeShow reboot is a mid-season dud and, ultimately, a portion of the blame must fall at King James’ feet.

When James signed with Los Angeles during the offseason, it was hardly the obvious move from a basketball perspective. There were many other teams he could have joined which would have offered him a better chance at contending for a title immediately. Simply leaving the Eastern Conference for the much more competitive West was always going to notch up the degree of difficulty.

But it was LeBron James we were talking about. The same guy who single-handedly carried a Cleveland Cavaliers team to the NBA finals that featured Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and post-prime Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the starting five. When hasn’t he found a way to make it work?

Sure, adding the motley Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson to the pre-existing core of promising but unproven young talents like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma didn’t augur an overnight championship run. There, however, was always the likelihood that the Lakers weren’t done with constructing the roster. Given the chance, there was every reason to believe that general manager Rob Pelinka would add the right pieces before the trade deadline to complement James just like in Cleveland and Miami.

That never happened. Instead, the Lakers have never really looked like anything more than LeBron James, a handful of talented but green youngsters and a few wayward veterans. They have struggled to cohere into a team under 38-year-old head coach Luke Walton, a process not helped by a litany of injuries.

When they did attempt to add a game-changing talent to the roster with an aggressive push for New Orleans Pelicans’ big man Anthony Davis, it wound up backfiring. Turns out, Davis was still under contract with the Pelicans, who were not entirely pleased with their franchise player’s very public trade request (and who, if you believe the Lakers, entered trade talks in bad faith). It’s likely New Orleans never intended to move Davis to LA during the season, merely seizing the opportunity to sow division as a form of revenge.

If so, it worked. All of the younger Lakers who would have been involved in a Davis trade were not exactly thrilled to be pegged as expendable, only further undercutting the team’s already dubious chemistry. It’s not a stretch to connect this growing discord to why the Lakers have lost nine of 12 games since the start of February, effectively washing out of the playoff race in less than five weeks’ time.

Falling short of the playoffs is a relatively new phenomenon for the Lakers, who have failed to qualify for five straight postseasons after missing it only five times in their first 65 years of existence. It would be a far bigger shock for James, who’s advanced to the tournament in all but his first two seasons, even when burdened with pedestrian supporting casts. Make no mistake: LeBron is pulling his weight and filling the stat sheet with averages of 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists, but it hasn’t quite been enough to vault the entire enterprise on his shoulders. What we’re starting to see, perhaps, is a 34-year-old with a lot of miles on the tires approaching eyeshot of his athletic mortality.

And here’s the main thing: James is the one who agreed to join this team knowing it might not have been the best fit. He’s been consulted and signed off every questionable veteran signing. He played a feature role in the disastrous Davis deadline discussions. Few expected the Lakers to steamroll to the NBA finals overnight, not with the Warriors still tops among a fleet of West contenders. But even fewer expected James would be punting away one of his precious remaining seasons as a top-shelf player.

James has always been a player firmly in control of his own narrative since his first departure from Cleveland for Miami, when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and won a pair of championships to shed a legacy of coming up small on the NBA’s biggest stage. Then he returned to Ohio, brought the city its first title in any sport in 52 years and erased much of the acrimony that surrounded his initial exit.

But it’s been somewhat less clear what story James was trying to write for himself when he went to LA. Certainly, there was the prospect of joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the annals of the league’s most glamorous franchise. There were also family considerations and a chance to further establish himself as a player in the entertainment industry while also affording himself a sense of relative anonymity after fishbowl life in his home state. To be more than an athlete. As his agent Rich Paul pointed out, “In 2010, when he went to Miami it was about championships … in 2018, it was just about doing what he wants to do.”

Still, it was always supposed to be at least partly about championships. And going forward, to be sure, it still will be. After this season ends – sooner or rather than later it seems – James will have three years left on his deal and the Lakers will have ample salary cap room this offseason. That gives them plenty of flexibility to assemble a championship-caliber team. This year’s failure could even wind up a blessing in disguise if the draft lottery balls fall in their favor. The Lakers, most likely, will be fine.

Even so, this year’s pile-up is a true rarity: an occasion where LeBron’s reach extended his grasp. James couldn’t stay on the court, couldn’t deliver Anthony Davis and couldn’t turn this group of ragtags into a true contender. Maybe it was too much to ask, but it wouldn’t have been the first time that he’d surpassed all logical expectations. Maybe that’s why, for the first time in ages, LeBron James has truly surprised us.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.