LeBron James should have fallen off by now. He turned 37 years old in December. He’s about to pass 63K minutes in his career between the regular season and the playoffs, a number only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can top in NBA history. While he’s been fortunate to avoid a serious injury, he’s spent the last several seasons playing through various strains and sprains that have a way of adding up over time.
Yet even in Year 19, James remains one of the six or seven best players in the world. While he isn’t capable of going all-out on every possession of every regular season game like Giannis Antetokounmpo at this point in his career, James’ top level is still arguably as high as any player in the game today. There is little doubt he’s still capable of being the best player on a championship team under the right circumstances.
Unfortunately for him, the Los Angeles Lakers do not have a championship-level team. Right now, they wouldn’t even have a playoff team if not for the expanded format via the play-in tournament that James once spoke so strongly against. At a time in his career when James should be padding his resume to further aide his case in GOAT arguments over the next 50 years, he’s instead left to play out the string for a team that has been going nowhere since the start of the season.
The Lakers failed LeBron in Year 19. It’s natural to wonder how many great seasons like this one he has left.
Some have been quick to blame James for the Lakers’ failures this year. He reportedly pushed for LA to trade for Russell Westbrook when they had another deal for Buddy Hield on the table. Maybe the Lakers even could have landed DeMar DeRozan, who has had a career-year for the Chicago Bulls at age-32. Yes, it was easy to predict the fit issues with Westbrook that would ultimately help sink LA’s the season. It also isn’t James’ job to pull the trigger on such a move.
The blame for the Lakers’ nightmare season must first go to ownership and the front office. It was ownership who decided they didn’t want to go deeper into the luxury tax pay Alex Caruso. It was the front office who turned down quality offers for Talen Horton-Tucker (and then chose to re-sign him over Caruso). The Lakers’ other offseason moves, defined by prioritizing veteran players whose best days are behind them, didn’t work out either. For as much influence as James’ wields, it’s still the front office’s job to tell him ‘no.’
James has also been failed by his handpicked co-star Anthony Davis, who can’t stay on the floor. AD helped bring the Lakers a championship in the bubble in 2020, but he’s been unreliable ever since. How can a 28-year-old be named one of the 75 greatest players in league history while not being named an All-Star in the prime of his career?
James asked fans to “keep that same narrative energy” in an offseason tweet when the Lakers were being mocked for compiling a roster that was so old. The fans have obliged by making fun of the Lakers downfall all season.
February 28, 2022
LeBron played some role in constructing four championship teams, but he’s not an executive. He’s a basketball player. And as a player, LeBron still has way too much left in the tank to see a legitimately great season at age-37 completely wasted by his incompetent team.
James started to get hot in the third quarter as the Lakers hosted the Mavericks on Wednesday night. As the Mavs started to build a sizable lead, James hit three consecutive three-pointers to tie the score. This one was from the logo:
LeBron from the LOGO!— NBA (@NBA) March 2, 2022
The @Lakers are LIVE on TNT pic.twitter.com/f5KNFgCAKX
With eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, James hit Carmelo Anthony for a three that put LA up five points. Then he checked out of the game to get a brief rest.
By the time the LeBron checked back into the game less than two and a half minutes later, the Lakers’ lead was all but gone. The Mavericks would go on to win, 109-104. While single game plus-minus is noisy and often irrelevant, James finished +7 in a game the Lakers lost by five. It feels like it’s been the same story all year for him and his team.
James has been the fifth best player in the NBA this year by all-in-one metric EPM. He’s third in the league in scoring, top-20 in assists, top-30 in rebounds, top-10 in steals. He’s having his most efficient scoring season since his last year with the Cavaliers by true shooing percentage. He’s still getting to the rim at an incredible rate, and he’s making 79.3 percent when he gets there. It’s his second best finishing season ever.
James’ play has of course slipped a bit from his prime in Miami and Cleveland, but his level of play was so high that he remains one of the best players in the league even with the drop-off. An all-time great like LeBron deserves to be competing deep in the playoffs when he’s playing like this, not carrying a flawed team on his back just to make the play-in tournament.
It’s fair to give LeBron some of the blame for the Westbrook trade. It’s been fair to criticize him for opening discussing a potential return to the Cavs, and then slamming anyone who talked about it. It’s fair to make fun of him for his offseason tweets.
The reality is LeBron is a top-3 NBA player ever, and there’s an argument he’s played at a higher level for longer than anyone in the history of the game. He’s still one of the best players in the league right now. Basketball fans should be treated to watching him compete for title No. 5 surrounded by a supporting cast that can match his level.
Instead, the Lakers have completely wasted a gem of a season from LeBron.
There is so much blame to go around for the Lakers. But given how well LeBron has played this season, it deserves to be spread to so many other parts of the organization before it reaches him.