LeBron James is in trouble.
Not just in the obvious “missing the playoffs for the first time since his second year in the league off the heels of eight straight Finals appearances” sense, but in a way that completely rattles his legacy to its core.
Once he decided to take his talents down to the prophesized Los Angeles Lakers, the team seemed to instantly rocket to the top of the West, primed to topple even the dynastic Warriors. His true legacy-cementing test, the flick of the wrist for his career, would be conquering the mythical Western Conference as he had done with the East for nearly two decades.
However, sixty-six jarring games later, an insurmountable seven games lock them out of a spot in the playoffs after the hype of vanquishing the giants of the league. Railing a five-game losing streak and only having seven more contests to steady the ship, any semblance of playoff hopes disintegrated long ago.
The league and probably LeBron himself accidentally grew so accustomed to LeBron’s’ routine playoff runs that seeing him trapped on a lottery team comes off as almost refreshing, finally witnessing an Eastern Conference up for grabs as sport intended. Nonetheless, a LeBron-less playoff may not sit well for LeBron stans and the global, more superstar-adoring market.
Lakers defenders attempt to justify the disappointment through Lonzo Ball missing significant time and LeBron himself sitting a sizable chunk of the midseason. But the cheap veil of injury cannot map or excuse the more fundamental issues with the roster construction and, well, a lot regarding LeBron himself. But more on that second aspect later.
The Lakers feel like a trickier team to decipher than they really are due to the offseason addition of the greatest player of this generation, but LeBron’s hulking presence has proven to need an uber-specific roster make-up surrounding him to win.
Manifesting from the unique form of dominance of his play style, surrounding him with efficient shooters and a sidekick capable of quick scoring bursts, is what a team needs to provide him with to succeed with him. That explains why Kyrie Irving clicked so perfectly next to LeBron the 2016 Cavaliers and pulled off a championship run. Those Cavaliers might have been the pinnacle of this, even when considering some of the all-time great Miami Heat teams.
Unsurprisingly enough, the Lakers have next to none of this in place to support LeBron. Ball, as eager as he is to get the ball out of his hand, potentially could have meshed pretty well alongside LeBron barring his injury-riddled year. Besides that, however, the rest of the core honestly seems to haven’t quite figured themselves out yet, let alone demanding them to keep pace with an all-time great.
Kyle Kuzma can’t be considered a possible scoring threat without an effective three ball and his incredibly shoddy shot choices. Brandon Ingram, in all his skinny glory, probably is developing into a slinky scorer but, like Kuzma, still can be far too on-again-off-again. Kuzma is only in his sophomore season while both Ball and Ingram are just old enough to drink, not even close to being ready to headline a championship roster. Throw in the mangle of misshapen veterans with poor defensive efforts and the result is a season that will cost Luke Walton his job.
Off the court, the way-too-public, LeBron-fueled Anthony Davis trade deadline disaster spurned the violent implosion of this team. With essentially the entirety of the roster on the rumored trade report, team chemistry was demolished. Even a roster packed with veterans would have been tested to ignore the noise.
But the real kicker comes from the clear puppeteering by the should-be, superstar, veteran, captain of the ship. This hasn’t been the first instance of LeBron clearly taking general managing in his own hands and tampering in signings and deals. Especially on a far more youthful team who haven’t gotten the memo, gazing up at a Hercules of sports on the court alongside them and having the toxic realization, he would rather have an Anthony Davis over all of them creates unbreachable chasms and, more dangerously, enemies. Teams, sports or not, cannot work like that.
From career role player Tristan Thompson landing a massive eighty-two million deal to a sharply declining Rajon Rondo striking nine million on the Lakers, LeBron understands the dynamics of the league enough to use his cosmic influence in the basketball and sports world to bend front offices to his own desires, no matter the cost to the team or the future of the franchise.
Coming from veteran-laden, TV dinner-esque rosters for the entirety of his career, James doesn’t seem equipped nor willing to settle into a fostering role, whether from the traditional LeBron selfishness we are used to or, more fascinatingly, out of pure bewilderment. Never before has he been asked to “lead” in the elevating a team and nurturing the stars he instead asks for (but more on that later). Now the franchise inadvertently asks him to do exactly that on a forgivably raw Lakers team.
Missing the playoffs or disappointing as mightily as the Lakers have doesn’t decimate his legacy so much as the exposing of his greatest flaw-the inability to create superstars around him. Though previously mere wisps of criticisms by true Michael Jordan sticklers, itchingly observant fans, in at-the-time feeble attempts to debase him, noted LeBron never made Dwyane Wade, that he never made Chris Bosh, that he never made Kyrie Irving. That these players already achieved greatness pre-LeBron and didn’t need his presence to do so, only numerically improving the team in star power, which results in the occasional Finals win in uncharacteristically weak seasons.
Irving, the finest counter to this after his career peak occurred next to LeBron, didn’t become more talented or overall greater because of LeBron, only did he fit the LeBron sidekick requirements to a T. Their individual play styles complimented each other enough to cause the perception of a “greater” Irving thanks to LeBron.
Statistically speaking, only in his final season as a Cavalier did he experience a noticeable leap, a leap that wholeheartedly sustained itself in his first season a Celtic, dismantling LeBron’s value to Kyrie. Rather, proving LeBron’s rigid stipulation for only a specific roster to succeed.
Though not to rekindle the annoyingly lazy Jordan versus LeBron narrative, this teammate elevation trait enters the pantheon of the legends of the sport. Jordan made Scottie Pippen great, proven concretely after the two walked their separate ways. Shipping off to Houston after the Bulls crowning jewel Finals in 1998, a thirty-three-year-old Pippen saw a curiously significant statistical dropoff in the Jordanless Rockets lineup. He went from 19.1 points a night to 14 points, shooting 45% to 43%, 2.5 turnovers per game to 3.2 turnovers, but most critically, a severe downturn in wins.
In a lockout-shortened season, an elder Big Three of Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Pippen only mustered a 31-19 record, coming to a whimpering end at the hands of the Shaquille O’Neal-led Lakers in the first round. Without Jordan, Pippen became an afterthought in the league after years of epic conquest of the league and fizzled out his shell of a career after a too-long stint in Portland.
Now LeBron has often posed the hardest threat to Jordan’s throne but without any clear jumps in development from his should-be protegees on the Lakers, the “any LeBron-led team can win” claim has to be buried. That will always be the separation between the two. Frankly, that will be the separation between LeBron, and unquestioned legends of the sport, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
Even more troubling than his inhibition to breed stars around him is the lack of clearcut care or intensity, all stemming from his deeper, non-basketball motivations. Originally coming to Los Angeles for the post-basketball ambitions, it only adds merit to his throwaway mentality with the team itself. Maybe he could make Ingram and Kuzma superstars. Maybe the Lakers could be a playoff team. Unfortunately, we would never know because of his ulterior focuses outside of basketball, no matter how often he preaches “playoff mode”.
He intentionally agreed to begin pre-production on the upcoming Space Jam sequel days after the Finals would end and has been heavily involved with the project for months. He spent the past few weeks, right as the freefall intensified for the Lakers, as the executive producer of rapper 2 Chainz’ latest effort, Rap or Go to the League. Bragging about passing Jordan in all-time points scored on Twitter before the game even begun hints at his self-centeredness and the tunnel vision focus on himself. As much as LeBron expects total dedication from his team, he doesn’t exhibit it himself a whole lot.
Even bleeding over onto the court, social media erupts nightly with LeBron defensive lowlights, often openly quitting on possessions and visibly gets frustrated with his teammates. Potentially blowback from the Davis ordeal earlier in the year, the surrounding Lakers do not appear to be a single unit as championship rosters must be and LeBron hasn’t done them any favors with his multiple non-basketball projects and overall poor effort. Instead of rallying around James, the gaping disconnect becomes more and more apparent on a nightly basis, intensified by the Davis drama.
In any world, LeBron has secured himself as an all-time great. Arguing against the fact would require braindead trivializing of the historical achievements and repeated instances of greatness. But pinning the blame of this fiasco elsewhere also ignores the conceptual and the more ambiguous failures of LeBron that nobody mentions. While swinging out on the MVP candidate Paul George, moving now-Eastern Conference All-Star D’Angelo Russell, and an overall lack of effective, schematic roster building dug a slight grave for the team right from the season opener, the question still needs to be asked.
How could a player we compare with the undisputable greatest player not sniff the playoffs in the heat of his prime?
Truth is, after this season, LeBron cannot be viewed under the same light as the titans of the sport. Straight willing a team demands more than gaudy numbers or traditional taking-over-a-game conventions. It requires a level of will achieved only by a select few of, really, athletes as a whole that possess it. Jordan possessed it. Walter Payton possessed it. Kobe Bryant possessed it. Tom Brady possesses it. Larry Bird possessed it.
Sadly, the difficult part of criticizing LeBron in such an intense and generalizing fashion is that he HAS displayed these traits on multiple occasions in his career. Without a doubt, he too possesses it. But it´s only when he wants to.
He promised to bring a title to Cleveland. In response, he rallies them from the legendary 3-1 deficit and turns in a masterpiece in Game Seven. And now the Lakers need that LeBron. Not the LeBron who focuses on his own individual success. Not the LeBron who blames his peers instead of taking responsibility. Not the LeBron who probably will quit on this franchise after his 2021 player option. They need the player who dragged a Cavaliers team consisting of Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, and Eric Snow to the Finals. Yet, when the teams’ season flushed down the drain, he is nowhere to be found.
And that’s the most difficult part about comparing LeBron to really any all-time great, not just the trendier Jordan. Had LeBron activated 2015 Finals for his entire career and not have coasted through the regular season as he often does, what could have he accomplished? The league (and especially the Lakers) need to expect more from their face of the sport itself because LeBron might have grown into the undisputed greatest and the holding back honestly tarnishes the pinnacle of this sport.
LeBron should be the greatest. From a physical gift and natural talent standpoint, he might be unmatched in NBA history. And yes, he does possess the mythological will. But he holds back. He quits. Only in the direst of moments does he flip a switch, and only when he sees fit. And despite all he has done, all he has accomplished, realizing what he could have done might be the greatest hypothetical and the greatest disappointment in the history of the sport.