Wednesday, December 7, 2022

LeBron James has some thinking to do after a disastrous Lakers season

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James peppers his news conferences with catchphrases and mantras, including a line from Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” that was passed along by Miami Heat President Pat Riley: “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

The aphorism encourages setting priorities and maintaining focus, key principles for a superstar athlete like James whose busy off-court life includes entertainment ventures, philanthropic efforts and social justice advocacy, not to mention his wife and three children. James takes pride in being “more than an athlete” — another favorite refrain — but he has always cast himself as an athlete first.

“If I was a s— basketball player, none of this would be possible,” James explained in 2019. “The main thing is basketball. I never lost track of that. Once that thing is taken care of, then the sky is the limit.”

Unfortunately, James’s basketball environment is in shambles, and his team’s immediate outlook qualifies as the bleakest point of his 19-year career. Thanks to a 121-110 loss Tuesday to the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Lakers were officially eliminated from the Western Conference’s play-in tournament. James sat out the clinching defeat with a sprained ankle, as the Lakers failed to reach the playoffs for the second time in his four-year Los Angeles tenure.

This dreadful campaign, which was doomed by the ill-advised trade for Russell Westbrook and repeated injuries to James and Anthony Davis, couldn’t have ended quickly enough for its stars, its embattled coach or its incensed fan base. Missing the play-in and avoiding the possibility of an embarrassing first-round loss qualifies as sweet relief. The Lakers appeared to realize that they were fundamentally broken and incapable of competing for a title before they sat out the trade deadline, and their 4-17 record since the all-star break has been an excruciating mess, punctuated by second-half collapses and loud boos for Westbrook.

Mercifully firing Coach Frank Vogel and finding a way to dump Westbrook’s $47 million contract via trade won’t fix all that ails these Lakers. Those moves would resolve some nagging sources of tension, but do little to improve the franchise’s 2023 title prospects.

There are too many other issues to address, including limited salary cap flexibility, a lack of young rotation players capable of growing into larger roles and a tapped-out pool of draft picks. There also isn’t any good reason to believe that the 37-year-old James and the oft-injured Davis can sustain good health across an 82-game season plus a deep playoff run without significantly more help.

At best, the 2022-23 Lakers can reclaim some dignity. Past that, the NBA has too many rising superstars and too many talented contenders to believe that this aging team can get back in the title hunt.

These challenging circumstances set up a fascinating summer for James, who spent All-Star Weekend flirting with the possibility of returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers and dreaming of a future NBA team-up with his 17-year-old son, Bronny. They also beg a crucial question: What is the main thing for James these days? Does he still yearn to match Michael Jordan’s six championship rings and overtake the Chicago Bulls legend as the Greatest Of All Time? Or, are James and his family so comfortable with their busy lives in Los Angeles that maximizing his title prospects is no longer his primary consideration?

When James found himself at similar crossroads in the past, he made bold, often surprising, choices that altered the league’s landscape and required him to change teams. In 2010, feeling frustrated by the Cavaliers’ stasis, he formed a superteam with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. In 2014, sensing that the Heat’s title window was closing, he returned to the Cavaliers, trading in Wade and Bosh for younger co-stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In 2018, with Cleveland boxed in by Irving’s departure and a clogged cap sheet, James jetted off to a fresh start in Los Angeles.

At the time, it was reasonable to believe that James’s move west was motivated by wealth and fame rather than basketball. But the Lakers had high-level young prospects, a cache of draft picks and a front office that was anxious to restore the franchise’s glory days. A 2019 blockbuster trade for Davis paid off with the 2020 title, an accomplishment that fully justified James’s original decision to sign with the Lakers. He managed to have his cake and eat it too.

Such a dynamic is no longer possible: Davis has played just 76 games over the past two seasons, and James is not the same player that he was four years ago. To be clear, James’s best nights, like his 56-point outburst last month against the Golden State Warriors, are still spectacular. But his availability, consistency and impact slipped this season even though he had an extended offseason to get his body right.

Whereas James could once carry almost any cast of teammates to a winning record, the Lakers have gone just 25-31 with their franchise player on the court this season. James has never appeared in fewer wins in a single season, not even during his rookie year or two previous injury-plagued campaigns with the Lakers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant have surpassed James in the NBA’s superstar hierarchy, but the Lakers’ forward could still be the best player on a title team in the right situation. James’s experience matters a lot in the playoffs, as does his ability to manipulate matchups and make his teammates better. If he were surrounded by a younger, more talented and more athletic starting lineup that eased his regular- season burden, perhaps he could replicate his phenomenal 2020 postseason run. As is, the Lakers’ strategy of desperately running up his minutes and praying that nothing bad happens is doomed to fail.

James’s contract will pay him $44.5 million next season before he is eligible for free agency in July 2023. He could take the Kobe Bryant approach by accepting that he is in the twilight of his career and continuing to cash out as the face of the NBA’s most prominent franchise. If James runs it back in Los Angeles, the predominant storyline will be his chase of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record.

This summer and the 2022-23 season would get a lot more interesting, though, if James admitted to himself that the Lakers are in a much more dire situation than he faced with the 2010 Cavaliers, 2014 Heat and 2018 Cavaliers. An offseason trade could give James the opportunity to play more meaningful basketball next season and grant the Lakers a chance to reset their culture and acquire draft capital. Thanks to the fond memories of the 2020 title, it wouldn’t need to be a messy split.

“Winning is what’s most important to me and what’s always been most important to me,” James said during a tough patch in March. “But the one thing I’ve been able to do is keep the joy of the game.”

James has indeed plugged away through this trying season, chasing a possible scoring title while picking and choosing his spots to deliver memorable performances. His patience has been impressive and unexpected, considering the poor roster construction, the heavy workload and the injuries.

That said, James has never seemed like the type to fade quietly. if winning truly does remain the driving force in his life, this summer is the right time to explore the possibility of greener pastures.

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