Two years ago, the world may have been upside down, but all was right in Laker Nation. After a decade of futility, the Purple and Gold were on top of the NBA, champions once again. As the confetti fell inside a largely empty arena in the NBA bubble, the best player on the planet had made good on his promise to put the franchise “back in the position where it belongs”.
Given the Lakers’ habit of hanging around the NBA finals once they finally break back in, it did indeed seem as if LeBron James & Co were only just getting warmed up. But it turns out that the heat radiating from the afterglow of that victory may well have been the earliest sign of the meltdown to come.
On Tuesday, five days before the NBA regular season’s closing curtain, the LeBron-era Lakers hit their nadir. They went to Phoenix with James sidelined through injury and fell to the Suns, 121-110, their seventh defeat in a row. To add insult to injury, the Suns loss ruled the Lakers out of the playoff’s play-in round, a lifeline James once bemoaned quite emphatically. The self-styled GOAT was even roasted at the Oscars, with co-host Regina Hall arguably landing the night’s third-most provocative joke.
Even though LA have weathered their share of bad breaks this season — not least a slew of aches, pains and Covid absences that has forced coach Frank Vogel to deploy 24 different players and 39 starting line-ups — much of the blame for the Lakers’ wayward prospects should fall at the feet of James, a postseason spectator for just the fourth time in his illustrious career. After all, he isn’t just the straw that stirs the Lakers. He mixes the drink too as shadow general manager, exerting his sweeping influence from inside the locker room and through his player agency, Klutch Sports.
Unlike his idol Michael Jordan, whose desire to pick his own teammates was vigorously checked by the gimlet-eyed Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, James has yet to find a front office he couldn’t steamroller. His fingerprints are all over the Lakers’ 2019 trade for Anthony Davis, a wildly talented big man who is oft-injured and generally averse to putting an entire team on his back. They are all over the August trade for Russell Westbrook, a hall of fame-bound point guard who is not only missing a steady jump shot, but also a modicum of patience. In those trades, Brandon Ingram (24 years old), Kyle Kuzma (26), Lonzo Ball (24) and other fresh legs and potential draft picks were shipped away to maximise the 37-year-old James’s late-career window. James’s fourth year in LA began with him as the centrepiece of a rotation also made up of Westbrook (33), Carmelo Anthony (37), a second tour of Rajon Rondo (36) and a third tour of Dwight Howard (36). Suffice to say: This would have been an awesome Cleveland Cavaliers team in 2008. It’s bad enough that James has missed 23 games this season. He resorted to playing heroball, or thoroughly against type. He chased double-doubles and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring mark while the Lakers slipped out of the playoff picture and into irrelevance.
During the All-Star break in Cleveland James told The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd that he was entertaining the idea of a second homecoming. In that same interview, James reiterated a desire to play with his eldest son, Bronny — who isn’t near the NBA shoo-in his father was at his age. Unfair, maybe, but remember: James started this. Perhaps most embarrassing: After the LA’s Super Bowl triumph in February, James tossed around an idea for a triple-team “parade of champions” with Rams, Dodgers and Lakers. Again, his title was in 2020.
James even brought the typically stoic Abdul-Jabbar to a boil with his shrugging endorsement of a Spider-Man meme that tapped into a broader sense of exasperation in distinguishing from Covid, cold and flu symptoms. (Abdul-Jabbar’s point is that as an outspoken advocate for vaccinations, James can’t afford to be so thoughtless.)
In general, James has looked for all the world like pretty much exactly what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst says he is: the peripatetic superstar who burns too bright for any team to hold on to beyond four years.
“Call it organisational fatigue,” the dean of Bron-ologists said on the ESPN morning show Get Up. “It happened the first time in Cleveland. They ran out of draft picks, they had a bunch of guys in their mid-30s … He goes to Miami, four years, great run, they run out of draft picks. In his last game, three guys retired … He goes to Cleveland, four years, great run. They run out of draft picks, they have got old guys. Here we are in LA, fourth year, the oldest team we have seen in NBA history, they are out of draft picks. They are exhausted.”
If the pattern holds, there is no way James — an unrestricted free agent in 2023 — signs up for two or more years of misery in Los Angeles. Sure, he will always be fondly remembered for the championship he won for the city during Covid — the hardest title in history, if you ask him. And one meltdown year isn’t enough to ruin a 20-year standard. He can still call himself king if he likes. He just needs to do the honourable thing and own this Lakers landfill fire as his personal annus horribilis. — Guardian.