Even before more ominous news broke about Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ biggest question revolved around the weight LeBron James is carrying and whether it’s fair to ask more of him.
Now that Davis’ long-term status has turned murkier due to the stress injury in his foot that could cost him more time than the original forecast, the Lakers and James are nearing something of a crossroads.
James, predictably, wants help. Even as Davis played some of the best basketball games of his career, it did little to help the Lakers achieve mediocre status in the West.
So much of the best-case scenario has unfolded for the Lakers: Davis has seemingly taken on the mantle of the Lakers’ best player, a mutual force that’s consistent and dominant. Darvin Ham has shown the chops to be a good head coach, consistent and inspirational. Russell Westbrook took his role off the bench without complaining and being the best version of himself that one could reasonably expect.
And even at best, it means nothing.
This must be more than sobering for Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka, it must be terrifying.
Now that Davis is out for the foreseeable future and even longer, keeping things afloat will take more of a toll on James — if that’s the term to use when talking about a team that’s out west and beyond Oklahoma City in 13th place is Donner in the overall standings.
James used to be a one-man stimulus pack. There was a time when you could lay James on the floor and line him up with the used parts from Fred and Lamont Sanford’s garage and feel like he was going to make the most of it.
Referring to another prominent player, an NBA executive told Yahoo Sports: “[Player] influences winning, but does not drive it.”
That last part might best describe James at or near his peak. James was perhaps the greatest all-time winner in modern NBA history. That doesn’t mean he’s the best or greatest player; it simply implies that a team’s floor will be raised to its highest point when it’s around.
The biggest drivers of success now seem to be Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant. If you only have them, you have an opportunity to go over the top.
James continued to lead this table in 2019-20.
Now he influences winning and can be exceptional at it.
Making teams competent and functional is a talent, but we’re starting to see it waning as James nears 38 a few days after Christmas. For the second straight season and for most of his time as a Laker, it doesn’t seem like James will promote the Lakers to competitive status.
It’s usually something that got in the way of James and the franchise’s big preseason dreams: an injury to James combined with a team-changing controversy, or an injury to Davis. Before James arrived in Los Angeles, the last time his team was truly out of the championship discussion was 2006 — his third year in the league and the first time he got a taste of the postseason.
He was 21 then and put together an excellent two-run show that would foreshadow the next 15 years or so: An entertaining first-round series against Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards, followed by a win over then-two-time East Champion Detroit Pistons with one 3-2 lead to the edge before losing by seven points.
Twenty-one was a long time ago.
It shows now, sometimes on the floor, when he can’t impose his sheer will on a game that seems desperate for possession. He makes the second most shots of his career (22 attempts) while his efficiency is declining (49.3% would hit his lowest after 2015). His free throws continue to drop while 3-point shots continue to increase – his seven tries per night is the second highest mark of his career and 31.4% of throws is the third highest of his career as a rookie and 2015/16 lows.
It’s hard to remember a 38-year-old who looked this good even though the numbers are going downhill, but the Lakers aren’t good enough to have a version of James that’s less than his historical standard.
The squad isn’t designed to be an exceptional 38-year-old; it challenges him to be an exceptional player for any age and that doesn’t seem realistic at this point.
He can certainly rev it up for a couple of weeks, morphing into the Tasmanian Devil for a while during the upcoming lull in the season to maybe drag the Lakers into a play-in spot. But with his health on the rise, the miles on his body and the beatings he’s taken, pushing himself beyond his limits for something that doesn’t feel like a worthwhile return doesn’t seem feasible.
Add to that the fact that James averaged 36.9 minutes per game in the league during his final season in Cleveland. In the last two seasons he’s played an average of 36.6 minutes so far – which feels like a recipe for injury if people aren’t careful.
And unfortunately for the Lakers, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they sacrifice an already unknown future for a slim possibility that the present might look better than it is now.
It doesn’t feel like they can take a step to rise in the meantime, and it’s probably best if they’re seated in reality.
It’s not a death knell, the Lakers have previously been in unsavory positions like many other franchises.
It’s their turn.
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