There’s an inevitability to LeBron James that the NBA hasn’t seen since Michael Jordan. It’s why the Los Angeles Lakers were the betting favorites in the Western Conference entering the playoffs despite being the No. 7 seed and having both of their superstars banged up. It’s why a Game 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns wasn’t reason for panic — LeBron often loses Game 1 and still advances. It’s why his Los Angeles Lakers were a two-point favorite entering a do-or-die Game 6 even with a clearly hobbled Anthony Davis.
Over the last 10 years, having LeBron on your team has felt like a guaranteed trip to the NBA Finals. Save for his first season in Los Angeles when a groin injury ended his season early and the Lakers missed the playoffs, James entered this postseason having made the Finals in every other year since 2010. Part of that could be attributed to spending most of his career in the weaker Eastern Conference, but most of it can attributed the fact that we’re talking about LeBron here. Winning on the biggest stages has defined his career as much as anything else.
It’s been easy to think of LeBron as something greater than mortal as he’s dominated the league after the last 18 years, but of course that isn’t true. As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated. With his age-36 season now in the rearview mirror, the twilight of LeBron’s NBA career has finally come fully into focus.
The Phoenix Suns knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs on Thursday night, ending James’ postseason run in the first round for the first time in his career. This shouldn’t be as surprising as it feels: Phoenix was the superior team throughout the season, James and Davis were playing through injury, and there were warning signs over the last six months that this version of the Lakers wasn’t as good as the team that won the title in the bubble. It only feels surprising because the Lakers have LeBron, and historically LeBron reaches the NBA Finals even when his team is having a down year.
James has plenty of excuses for this season. He was a top-three MVP candidate until he suffered a sprained ankle in March, which he called one of the worst injuries of his career. After six weeks of rehab, James tweaked the ankle again just before the postseason. He never fully regained his explosiveness going to the basket, instead relying on a jump shot against Phoenix that has always been arguably the weakest part of his game.
Davis’ injury status was even more troubling. AD was limited to only 36 games during the regular season because fo a calf strain, and then suffered multiple leg injuries in the series against the Suns that knocked him out for the second half of Game 4, sidelined him for all of Game 5, and limited him to only five minutes in the decisive Game 6.
The rest of the Lakers were flawed, as well. The offense finished No. 24 in the league in efficiency, behind offensive luminaries like the Chicago Bulls and Tom Thibodeau’s New York Knicks (this is sarcasm). The Lakers downgraded at the wing by subbing out Danny Green — who still brought gravity as a shooter even when he was struggling — for Wes Matthews. It’s hard to argue Dennis Schroeder was an upgrade over the dark magic of Playoff Rondo. The centers were probably worse too as the team went from Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee to Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol. Their biggest free agent signing, Montrezl Harrell, never fit the roster and barely cracked the rotation against Phoenix.
The Lakers had a chance to add Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline, but they reportedly didn’t want to part with Talen Horton-Tucker. THT is an intriguing young prospect, but it’s fair to wonder if Lowry would have given the Lakers just enough juice to swing the series against the Suns.
The Lakers’ biggest excuse, of course, is the shortest offseason in NBA history, with only 72 days separating their championship-clinching Game 6 victory over Miami Heat in the bubble from opening night of this year. The injury issues James and Davis faced all season can be tied directly to the short summer (or in this case, short fall). James deserves credit for forgoing load management to play in every game this season before the ankle injury, but in hindsight maybe he would have been better off taking it easy and saving himself for the playoffs.
All of this context clouds another inarguable fact: James simply isn’t as good as he used to be. LeBron’s peak was so high that he could drop off considerably and still be arguably the best player in the league. At this point in his career, though, it’s unfair to expect James to carry a team throughout a full regular season slate plus the playoffs. It’s in this regard where the likes of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and maybe Luka Doncic has surpassed LeBron in the league’s mythical present day player rankings. At this point, LeBron can only be the best player in the world in short bursts like the playoffs. He certainly didn’t play like it in this postseason run as he was hampered by the ankle injury and his team context.
If LeBron is going to win another championship with the Lakers before he retires, he simply needs more help. The Lakers need more offensive punch even if it means sacrificing some defense. They badly need another on-ball creator. They need to maximize the roster for the postseason when Davis slides up the five and LeBron plays the four instead of using a premium salary slot on a player like Harrell who doesn’t fit with the best version of the team.
Yes, the Lakers still started 21-6 this season before the injuries hit. With James entering his age-37 season and Davis having a long injury history, it isn’t realistic anymore to expect them both to be fully healthy throughout the 100-ish game slog it takes to win a championship.
None of this takes away from what LeBron is right now and what he has been throughout his career. The man’s longevity is truly remarkable in every sense. Michael Jordan — the player LeBron will forever be compared to — only played 1,251 games in his career between the regular season and playoffs. LeBron has already played 1,310 games just in the regular season, plus an additional 266 playoff games for a total of 1,576. That doesn’t count his commitment to the USA Basketball in the Olympics, either.
James needs more help because he’s about to be 37 years old. He needs more help because he’s simply one of the best players in the world right now, not definitively the best player even if he can still get there when it matters. He needs more help because he isn’t going to win another championship without it.
LeBron can still be an elite NBA player for another few seasons, but expecting him to be a one-man army at this stage of his career is just unfair. James isn’t inevitable anymore. If the Lakers want to get back to title contention, they need to accept this new reality and get James the support he needs.