A week ago we told you that Playoff LeBron was going to need to make an earlier appearance than he normally would. We told you that just to get to the playoffs, LeBron James would need to call upon the focus, energy, and otherworldly level he has access to. A day later, he (somewhat defiantly) said the same thing, noting he was going to “activate” a little earlier than he normally would. The message was clear. A ramped up LeBron was coming.
Three games later…and….well….yeah.
After the Lakers won in a thrilling comeback vs. the Houston Rockets, they’ve lost two straight games vs. sub-.500 teams. While losing on the road can be understandable, losing to the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans in a game where you don’t show up and then falling to the Grizzlies in a game where your defense gets shredded by one of the worst offenses in the league is not. Especially if your goal is to make the playoffs.
Over those three games LeBron has gotten his numbers:
- vs. the Rockets: 40 minutes, 29 points (11-23 shooting), 12 rebounds, 6 assists
- vs. the Pelicans: 39 minutes, 27 points (11-17 shooting), 7 rebounds, 12 assists
- vs. the Grizzlies: 40 minutes, 24 points (8-23 shooting), 12 rebounds, 11 assists
The numbers, though, only tell part of the story. After all, LeBron is a walking “numbers” guy. Forget writing them in pen, you can etch them in stone. He’s so good, so smart, he just walks on the court and finds a way to accumulate stats.
The other part of the story is that LeBron still does not look like the best version of himself. Far from it, really. He’s not creating separation offensively. He’s not beating guys off the dribble consistently. This is forcing him into more mid-range jumpers, more floaters, and more contested shots around the restricted area. He’s still big enough, strong enough, and talented enough to convert some of these, but earlier during the year when he was fully healthy more of these scoring chances were dunks, layups, and drawn fouls.
The difference in these two realities is stark and can plummet efficiency. The fact that LeBron is still able to be as effective as he has been speaks to how good he is. Fact is, though, is that the Lakers still need him to resemble the player he was pre-injury. He’s not there yet offensively.
Defensively, things are more dire. There is no sugar coating this — LeBron has not been good on that end. We can provide context for his defensive shortcomings — he’s in his 17th season, he’s played north of 50K minutes in his NBA career, he’s carrying a heavy load offensively, he’s playing heavier minutes than anyone would like — but context doesn’t change the on-court results.
LeBron isn’t making extra efforts on rotations or closeouts; sometimes he’s not even making initial ones. On any given possession he might not tag a roll man, venture from outside the paint to the three point line to contest a shot, vacate the wing to the paint to help on the defensive glass, box out as needed, or make a secondary recovery after showing his first show of help as part of the scheme. It’s hard to maintain collective integrity defensively when one of your heavy minute players exhibits this kind of inconsistency defensively. It is even harder when that player is your leader and best overall talent.
If the above sounds too harsh, I don’t know what to tell you. The tape doesn’t lie.
Rather than simply pile on LeBron, though, I believe the proper framing of this is more nuanced. The fact is, LeBron needs more help than what we’re used to him needing and the Lakers, collectively, are not currently capable of proving the help he needs. That’s how you lose to the Pelicans and Grizzlies in back to back games. It’s how you lose to the Hawks heading into the All-Star break.
I mean, this is amazing:
There’s no overcoming that. LeBron can be great (not “playoff LeBron” level, but all-star level like he mostly has been), Brandon Ingram can be fantastic (as he has been), Kuzma can be dialed in and providing what he has all season as a (mostly) reliable scoring option (as he has been), and this team will still lose if the other ancillary players perform as they have been lately.
The game logs tell a certain story, but again, the tape doesn’t lie. Go re-read that paragraph on LeBron’s defense, add in notes about dying on screens, gambling unnecessarily, switching when you don’t have to, and pointing a lot for a teammate to cover for you and that’s Rajon Rondo. JaVale McGee continues to chase blocked shots to the detriment of his duties on the defensive glass. KCP’s effort has fluctuated wildly and his shooting has not approached last year’s levels. Tyson Chandler is still trying hard, but physically looks his age and resembles more what you’d expect from a player who didn’t get any playing time on one of the league’s worst teams and got bought out because of that. Josh Hart is playing hard and bringing his normal intangibles, but his knee issues are evident and impacting his entire floor game (including, seemingly, his shooting and confidence in his shot).
I could go on and on, but you get the point. (Sidenote: this is where you can harp on the roster the Magic Johnson/Rob Pelinka front office constructed and the coaching missteps Luke Walton has overseen.)
I know the Lakers miss Lonzo Ball severely. His defense and pace he plays with are hallmarks of the best version of this team. But until he comes back, this is the group that has to play and, to a man, they have to be better. The margin for error is now nonexistent and waiting for a not-there-yet version of LeBron to save you isn’t the answer. He needs more help than what we’re accustomed to him needing and someone besides Ingram and Kuzma need to give it to him.