These Lakers will not make the playoffs. We’ve known this for some time. Before the Nets officially eliminated them, we knew. Probably even before they lost a key game to the last place Suns way back on March 2nd, we knew. Or at least we should have.
While the Lakers’ season has hit the skids, LeBron James continues to put up numbers that defy the stature of his team. In 10 games in the month of March he’s averaging 29.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 8.1 rebounds a game. He’s tallied 5 double digit assist games and racked up 2 triple-doubles (including one on Sunday night vs. the Kings) — while barely missing two others by a single rebound.
His stats, always great, have taken a jump of late and it’s worth not only noting, but lauding. He’s been so very good and has truly been fun to watch.
This leads us to a very interesting place, though. Many jokes were had at LeBron’s and the Lakers expense when he said he was going to “activate” playoff mode earlier than normal, only to have the Lakers start losing games at a rate which would make the Trust-the-Process 76ers stand up and applaud. But, when staring at his raw production, it’s hard to argue LeBron hasn’t stepped up his level of play. I mean, 30/8/9 lines don’t just happen.
Still, though, the Lakers lose. There is context that matters as to why those losses are happening (just as there’s context to why they beat the Kings). Those things matter a great deal to me, but for the sake of this piece right now, I’m going to ignore them to make a different point.
You see, what LeBron’s recent play has told me is twofold.
First, LeBron remains an amazing basketball player who should be buried at your own risk. I get there’s reason to believe he could be slowing down — his career minutes/workload combined with him suffering the first major injury of his career + a slight, but noticeable decline in his overall athleticism are all key parts of this discussion. That said, he continues to produce at a level few others in the league can consistently reach. His ability to read the game and understand exactly how to score, assist, and impact the game accordingly remains incredibly real.
Second, however, is that the noted impact is not the same as what it once was. In the wake of the Lakers signing LeBron, I wrote about the symbiotic relationship current LeBron has with his teammates and how that differed from the locomotive that was his first stint in Cleveland. From that piece:
Play him with Eric Snow or Boobie Gibson or Mo Williams, same result. Play him with Carlos Boozer or Drew Gooden, same result. Play him with Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao, same result. This isn’t to diminish any of these players, they all added value in specific ways and were good-to-excellent players in their own right. But LeBron wrecked shop regardless. He was that good.
LeBron’s transition to the Heat in 2011 and then his return to the Cavs in 2014, however, started to shift things and the rosters built around him began to be more curated to optimize him, specifically, rather than simply being built from the standpoint of how he could optimize his teammates.
Shooting was emphasized at all positions. Wings and perimeter players who could defend up or down a position became more valuable. High level ball handling and shot creation from at least one other perimeter player was almost a necessity. At least one rugged big man to patrol the back line defensively and be a nuisance on the offensive glass + a paint finisher was almost always present. These were player archetypes which would help LeBron be the best player in the world rather than just taking for granted he was going to be regardless.
From Chris Bosh to Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade to Kyrie Irving, Shane Battier to JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, Ray Allen to Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson to Birdman Andersen…the Heat and Cavs built rosters that could not only be boosted by LeBron’s insane talent, but who could help elevate him in ways to ensure his talent was as destructive a force as possible.
This will surely need to be true with the Lakers, too. And one needs to question how well they are positioned to be that team now, as is, and what moves will need to be made to get them closer.
The Lakers version of LeBron remains great, but those grafs above about him needing specific teammates to bring out the best in him seem even more relevant now. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron will still get his numbers and will still impact the game. But to impact the game in a way which puts you in position to win 50+ games…that’s a different formula now than what it was a decade ago.
Maybe this is silly to discuss this way in the first place, though. No one ever “does it alone” and the Lakers knew they were taking on a version of LeBron who was at the tail end of an already extended prime. Father Time can be fended off by the super elite for longer than their less esteemed contemporaries, but the hood and sickle comes for everyone. LeBron’s time may not be up, but he certainly needs a specific crew of ‘mates to circle the wagons and help shield him from living among the mortals.
The import of understanding this most falls not on people like you and me, though. The Lakers front office cannot sit here and put Luke Walton front and center like some dope on the table and claim victory by shuttering him. Moving forward requires a certain amount of self reflection and real analysis — not just of how the pieces fit, but an understanding and recognition of how valuable those pieces are.
In terms of LeBron, this doesn’t mean counting him out. Just as it doesn’t mean taking on either poles of thinking that the young players are going to end up being saviors or should be shipped out for a star running mate to James. What it does mean, though, is understanding the current state of his game and what goes into elevating him in the ways that allow him to approach his best as often as possible rather than taking it for granted that he’ll get there regardless.
Because as great as LeBron remains, we’re at the part of his career where his greatness has limits. And while that should have been clear way back in July, the Lakers surely should see it now. Especially as LeBron stuffs the stat sheet but the team continues to lose.