The LeBron James Experiment Has Failed
I don't care if the Lakers make the playoffs. I don't even care if they win a couple games if they get in. For all I care, they could actively tank and try to get a good draft pick so this season could be put to some good use. Despite what happens from here on out, the LeBron James experiment in purple and gold can be considered a failure, as most of us knew would be the case from the very beginning.
This is not a reflection of how the Lakers are doing right now, in this moment. I actually wrote the entirety of this on February 26, after the Lakers had lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, but held off hoping I could publish during a win streak of some sort. I tried to wait. But at this point, on March 3, it doesn't seem like we'll ever get there. This isn't a transient feeling. This is a collection of the frustration and helplessness that Laker fans feel. It's the collective emotion that has built up over the course of a doomed season, one that is inevitably hurtling towards its preordained outcome.
Back in July, mere hours before LeBron James would announce via unverified tweet that he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers, I wrote a piece called "LeBron, Don't Come to the Lakers." Whether the piece never made it to LeBron's desk or it failed to change his mind will never be known, but every take in there has aged quite well. At the time, I said that I've seen what LeBron James does to a team. In aspects both good and bad, LeBron has proven to be exactly who we thought he was. But just how right was I? I'll go through several claims I made in that original piece, and see how well they've held up now.
Because it's sacrilegious to provide valid criticisms on LeBron without going through a laundry list of everything he's ever accomplished, let's quickly go through what he's done well. He's been the Lakers' best player by far, averaging 8 more points, 1 more assist, and 2 more rebounds than the second-place leader in each category. The advanced stats back this up, giving him the team's highest value-over-replacement-player (VORP), box-plus-minus (BPM), win shares, and player efficiency rating (PER), despite having the highest usage percentage. He's their only All-Star and All-NBA caliber player.
Okay, that's enough of that. No one ever doubted that he'd be able to statistically perform well when he played. And if you just looked at the stats, you'd think that LeBron was doing fine, which (again), he is. But his stats alone hardly tell the entire story of what it's like to have LeBron James play for your basketball team.
Quick Note: Of the Lakers' 63 games this season, I've watched upwards of 50, the vast majority of them in their entirety. I wish I had taken notes since the start of the season so I could reference every single instance of every point I bring up, but if you're unconvinced then just watch a Laker game. But don't wait too long – we don't know how much longer before 'Bron gives up on the season for good.
Adding him to the Lakers may guarantee a playoff appearance, but it won't guarantee anything beyond that.
The Lakers sit at 30-33, losers of two straight, nine of their last thirteen, clinging to 10th place in the Western conference (which would be 8th in the East). They are 4-8 since LeBron returned from injury, including prominent losses to shithole teams (Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Phoenix) plus a loss to the Warriors when LeBron got re-injured (read: he didn't want another loss on his record) for one game. ESPN has their playoff odds at 2.9% and their championship odds at 0%, not even bothering to give the Lakers a courtesy <0.1%. Sure LeBron has missed 19 games, but even with him the Lakers are only 24-20, a winning percentage which would still only put them at a measly 6th place in the West. This is all despite the higher-seeded Clippers trading away their best player, and the higher-seeded Kings having no all-star players. Over the course of his eight-year romp of the East, the best team he probably faced was the Paul George-era Pacers, a team that probably couldn't beat four teams in the West *this season*. The presence of LeBron has guaranteed absolutely nothing.
He'll leave them… burdened with the contracts of players signed to… Klutch Sports.
The short version of this saga: excellent NBA player and current New Orleans Pelican Anthony Davis changed his representation at the beginning of this season, signing with Klutch Sports, which is run by LeBron's bestie Rich Paul. Paul and Davis formally requested a trade from the Pelicans just two weeks before the NBA's trade deadline, in an apparent attempt to ally Davis with LeBron, and force the hand of both the Pelicans and the Lakers. Throughout the process, it leaked that the Lakers had offered half their team (including all their young players). The trade didn't end up working, killing team chemistry and morale, and resulting in a clear split between LeBron and the rest of the team. Oh, and fellow Klutch client and garbage NBA player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was given $12 million this year to be worse than he was last year.
It's important to note that Magic Johnson is very much to blame (as I've hardly been shy about expressing) for the roster construction of this team, but let's not pretend like Magic didn't run all of these moves by LeBron for his approval. Even if Magic thought that these 'hard-nosed veterans' would be a good idea, you'd think that the man with a legendary basketball IQ would know better.
As recently as this week, LeBron has apparently urged the front office to unironically consider signing chemistry-killer and underrated thicc player Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo is someone who hasn't made it work on two straight playoff teams, both of whom have been far better without him. But that's LeBron's idea of a solution.
He'll have gotten one coach fired.
All signs point to Luke Walton's ouster following what will be a lost season. Management has been reluctant to give him backing beyond the summer, and LeBron prefers to speak with assistant coach Brian Shaw during timeouts which is a big deal I guess. For some reason, it's been floated that Jason Kidd – who was so horrid in both Brooklyn and Milwaukee that both teams improved after he left – could be a candidate. Since the All-Star break, you can even get betting odds on who the Lakers' next coach will be.
The team has been halfway gutted… getting LeBron might require pulling out the scalpel.
When I wrote that line, half the young core had already been unceremoniously dismissed from the team, but Julius Randle hadn't yet been jettisoned for nothing in return, Svi Mykhailiuk hadn't yet been dumped for *checks notes* Reggie Bullock, and Ivica Zubac hadn't yet been shipped off for *squints* Mike Muscala??? It's a wonder that there's even a single young guy left. And as we've established, if LeBron had his way, the entirety of this team would just be him and Anthony Davis standing among the ashes of a once-promising nucleus.
To everyone who says the Lakers' young players suck, or that they can't develop them well, try and find any starting-level player who has been better playing with LeBron than playing without him. Find just one. There's a dumb punditry that circles young players in the league – we want them to all be superstars so badly that we don't appreciate them for what they are, until they reach a certain age when they're not expected to improve any further, at which point we can finally accept the player they've become. So instead of looking at Brandon Ingram and saying "he's a quality starter right now and can continue to improve his three-point and free throw percentages," we revert to the ludicrous "He'S nOt ThE fIrSt OpTiOn On A cHaMpIoNsHiP tEaM" narrative. Oh, and if you want to do a fun statistical deep dive, compare Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum this season, and tell me just how different they are. Or, look at D'Angelo Russell or Julius Randle and see how they're doing now. The Lakers had improved from 17 to 26 to 35 wins in two seasons under Luke Walton, and seemed poised to continue that development (ironically, they'll probably fall short of that pace even after adding LeBron) if they had held on to these good pieces. Yeah you need your superstars, but you need guys #3-10 as well.
Quick Note: Since I first wrote this on February 26, Brandon Ingram has been excellent, averaging 25+ points on good efficiency. It would be insane to include him in any trade in the summer, since he's still on a comparatively cheap contract.
This is something that LeBron either doesn't understand or doesn't care to understand. He's always been a quick fix guy, creating the first modern super-team of 3 players in their prime years in Miami, and then orchestrating the Andrew Wiggins (when he was still the ultra-promising #1 overall pick) trade for Kevin Love upon his return to Cleveland. He duped us into thinking that this time it was going to be different. It was after their first game (a loss at Portland) that LeBron said “I’ve been preaching since the season started… that it was going to take patience from our team, from all of us." Barely two weeks later, he warned "you probably don't want to be around when my patience runs out." LeBron conducts himself as though he is the one solely winning a championship, and everyone else around him is a hindrance, an obstacle to be overcome. He knowingly joined a team rife with young players, preached about patience, and then proved that he has no ability to change.
We don't know when the cliff will arrive for LeBron, and that's the point.
Did I mention he's missed 19 games? If 82 games of LeBron are supposedly needed to even reach the playoffs, then forget it.
I won't like watching you.
For someone who is so good, LeBron can be the most infuriating player to watch through an entire game. There was one play from their loss against Memphis which serves as a microcosm of the entire LeBron experience. It's a quick seven-second clip that's since gone viral, and it shows a wide open three-point attempt (splash) from a Grizzlies player in transition, where LeBron doesn't even make an effort to contest (choosing to stand lifeless 20 feet away). As the ball goes through the net, LeBron looks around in exasperation, his palms turning upward to ask the heavens what he had done to deserve such incompetence around him, his shoulders slouching as if he was literally being asked to carry the team on his back. It's not overly demonstrative, he doesn't yell or scream, he just moodily shrugs, a movement so instinctive that he couldn't possibly suppress it even if he wanted to. It's emblematic in the sense that in LeBron's eyes, LeBron is infallible, because there is no way that anything could possibly be his fault.
This was a game in which, if you were wondering, LeBron shot 8-23 (0-4 from three), had five turnovers, and had a crucial offensive foul in the last minute when they were down 4. But he had a triple-double, so it's all okay I guess.
The worst part of it is that this is hardly a unique clip. If you watch Lakers games regularly, you'll see this exact trend multiple times a game: LeBron refusing to play defense, and looking around for someone else to blame after the opponent makes a shot. There's a 20+ minute clip of his defense from the 2017 NBA Finals (and one from the 2011 Finals if you're feeling retro). And you can save your "but he has to save energy to play on offense" bullshit too, because he doesn't look like he's pounding down low or running around a ton of screens on that end of the ball. Just in the last game vs. the Suns, LeBron fouled a three-point shooter with 6:42 left, and didn't bother to contest a Devin Booker runner with 3:36 left. He did it several times in the game before vs. the Bucks, just refusing to jump when a shot was taken within three feet of him, as if his pride was physically weighing him down. In both games, he showed that same irritation, betrayed by a menacing stare and upturned palms. And this lack of effort comes despite (or maybe because) the fact that he is rarely guarding the team's best or even second-best player.
LeBron refusing to play defense is just one of those 'things' that you acknowledge when he plays for you: you get all of the good of LeBron, and it's a given that you have to deal with the one or two bad things too. Which is dumb, because it's so easy to fix those one or two bad things. It's like saying that Russell Westbrook can't stop himself from taking five horrible shots every game, or that Karl-Anthony Towns just needs to foul so much in order to contest shots.
On the note of those bad things, the other is the way he plays in the last five minutes of a game. It's become so textbook that you can literally see the play coming: regardless of whether the Lakers are leading or trailing, LeBron will lazily dribble up the court or get a pass at the top of the key. He'll proceed to hold it for somewhere between 17-20 seconds, upon which he either steps back for a long three, or frantically passes it a teammate who doesn't have enough time to do anything with the ball. He'll rarely drive the ball, even if the lane is pretty wide open. He did exactly that when he got pissy vs. the Bucks (twice in the last 100 seconds). It's maddening – if you don't want to (or have the energy to) play offense, then just pass to someone who does. Take a play off if you need to, but don't ruin the opportunity for the rest of your team! They give you 24 seconds for a reason!! You're one of the most physically gifted players of all time!!!
LeBron has cost the Lakers between 3-5 games on free throws. And this isn't just statistical cherrypicking in hindsight, where the Lakers lost a game by X points and LeBron missed >X free throws. His end-game free throws are excruciating to watch, the ball spinning out of the rim from the force of LeBron's sheer apathy. Egregious instances include two missed free throws in the final minute vs. the Suns with the Lakers only down five (Mar 2), two with 11 seconds left in overtime up one vs. the Spurs (Oct 22), one with 2 seconds left tied vs. the Mavericks (Oct 31), two with 20 seconds left down one vs. the Hawks (Nov 11), one with 20 seconds left up 2 vs. the Cavaliers (Nov 21), one with 1 minute left down 2 vs. the Grizzlies (Feb 25). LeBron is 9th on the Lakers in free throw percentage; the only rotation players worse than him are point guards Rajon Rondo & Lonzo Ball, and centers Javale McGee & Tyson Chandler.
The drama of LeBron is somewhat amusing when juxtaposed with the Kyrie Irving saga that's currently playing out in Boston. Every few weeks, flat-earther Irving will have some quote in a postgame press conference where he goes out of his way to insult his teammates. Irving of course played with LeBron for a few years, so it's easy to see where he got his leadership skills from. Just this calendar year, LeBron has told the Lakers young players "stay off social media" to avoid trade rumors (again, ones that he had a direct hand in), said they were "accustomed to the losses", and that the Lakers were the "wrong franchise to be a part of" if anyone was allowing distractions. Oh, and LeBron's going to be a part of Space Jam 2, and episode 4 of The Shop is now streaming on HBO.