Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last time on Fact or Fiction: Nikola Jokic’s chances of an MVP three-peat]
With eight minutes left in their game against the Atlanta Hawks on LeBron James’ 38th birthday, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared poised to waste another remarkable performance by the aging legend. James had given them an absurdly efficient 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists over 32 minutes, and yet the Hawks had drawn even. He was trotting back on defense and milling about the perimeter on offense, seemingly, like the rest of us, resigned to the inevitability that another brilliant effort would result in defeat.
Then, he pulled up from 25 feet to drill a 3-pointer over Jalen Johnson, who was two months shy of his second birthday when James made his NBA debut in October 2003. When Atlanta trimmed the deficit to one, James fired a pass through three defenders to Thomas Bryant for a layup. James answered a Trae Young floater with another 25-footer, giving the Lakers a two-possession lead inside the four-minute mark.
For good measure, James added a driving layup through the entire Hawks’ defense, plus a free throw. He then drove by one-time All-Defensive guard Dejounte Murray, and when John Collins met him on the block, James blew by him, too, continuing under the basket for a five-foot fadeaway 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 shy of a 47-point triple-double on 67% shooting from the field, the most dominant game in NBA history by someone his age. He followed 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 his 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 aspect,” he told reporters several days earlier, following 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 ballclub with the right pieces. …
“I’m a winner, and I want to win. I want to win and give myself a chance to still compete for championships. … Playing basketball at this level just to be playing 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 couple of years.”
This was a cry for help — from his teammates, the front office and the entire NBA. Nothing new to the James experience, but this one felt weightier, because there is only so much winning basketball left in him.
On one hand, it is hard to feel too bad for James, since his station in Los Angeles is his own doing. He encouraged the Lakers to make their disastrous trade for 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 the roster is no better than the one that failed to 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, his ankles, his core and his left knee are feeling his 64,218 career minutes. 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. You try turning down a $100 million golden parachute when you have no idea how much longer you can work.
Surely, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka gave James some assurance that they would make every effort to put a winning product around him, and Anthony Davis has not stayed healthy long enough for the front office to decide whether it is even worth mortgaging the rest of this decade’s assets to add more talent around them. If only Pelinka had been so cautious when it came to the Westbrook trade — or, really, any decision he has made since the Lakers won their bubble championship. It is the team’s job to tell the superstar his team-building strategy is bad, and the Lakers were too timid or too misguided to correct him.
So, here we are, witnessing James chase Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record for a team three wins shy of 10th place and three quality players short of making noise in the postseason. He is playing basketball just to be playing basketball, and he is doing it at a level that could help a host of other teams win a championship.
What a waste.
It would feel less so if this were a novelty act, but his is a master class in performance art. Twenty seasons into his career, he is averaging a 29-8-7 on 58.6% true shooting, essentially no drop-off from his career averages. James has the greatest statistical résumé in NBA history, and he is somehow still piling numbers on at the same rate he did when he was a 28-year-old back-to-back regular season and NBA Finals MVP.
James is sitting on 37,903 career points, 484 shy of Abdul-Jabbar’s record. If James stays healthy, at this rate he will break the record sometime between the trade deadline and All-Star break. He will soon create the 40,000-point, 10,000-rebound, 10,000-assist club. (Nobody is even in the 30,000-7,000-7,000 club.)
To put that into perspective, Luka Doncic has averaged 28.7 points per game since he inexplicably fell to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, better than James’ average through five seasons (27.3). Yet, Doncic will likely trail James’ pace by more than 1,000 points at the end of this season, since 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 and plays 72 games a season (his career high to this point), he will reach 40,000 points 65 appearances into the 2037-38 season, his 20th in the NBA, at 39 years old.
Even Doncic cannot possibly imagine that happening.
“If you’re saying me, there’s no way,” he told reporters this week“because I’m not playing that much.”
James’ blend of longevity and consistency at the highest level seems impossible to recreate. He appeared at age 17 on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline, “The Chosen One,” and he is still delivering on his promise to him 21 years later. Yet, the Lakers (reportedly) give to pin the blame on James for their failures.
Jeanie Buss assumed ownership of the Lakers in 2013 and handed Kobe Bryant his own $48 million early retirement gift. They missed the playoffs every season until James decided he wanted to live in Los Angeles, recruited Davis, and the two of them won a title together. They lost a first-round playoff series the following year and are now headed for a second straight lottery appearance. The team’s management has been a debacle.
The Lakers have their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks to deal right now, which are exceptionally valuable, since the rest of the league knows how likely the Lakers are to run ground later this decade. This coming summer, they can add a 2023 pick from the New Orleans Pelicans to any package, and/or they can create something close to a maximum salary cap slot for what will be a fairly shallow free-agency pool.
The Lakers have options, only they are entrusting Pelinka, whose track record since overpaying for Davis is abominable, with salvaging James’ swan song. Either that, or they will have to trade James’ new contract, just to give him a chance to win elsewhere, because he shouldn’t have to endure another season like this.
Without James, the Lakers would have been operating as the worst-run team in the NBA for a decade now. Damn right they owe it to him to invest everything they have into ensuring he is not playing basketball just to play basketball anymore, since it is not like they can be trusted to rebuild a contender when he is gone.
Determination: fact. The Lakers have failed LeBron James.
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