LOS ANGELES — Just like he has done through 19 NBA seasons, LeBron James dominated once again with his strength, skills and smarts.
Just as it has been for most of the 2020-21 season, however, the Los Angeles Lakers needed more than just James’ heroics. They labored through a 138-110 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday for all the familiar reasons that made for a depressing sendoff in their final game at Staples Center.
The Lakers remained decimated with a depleted roster. The Lakers sorely missed their big man (Anthony Davis). The Lakers experienced both the best and worst of their prized point guard (Russell Westbrook). And the Lakers offered little on defense both at the rim and from the perimeter
All of which resulted in James finishing a wasted effort in points (36), rebounds (nine) and assists (six) in 35 minutes.
“This is the unknown,” James said. “I say every year has its own challenge. This is another year where you can literally have one guy one night and the next night you won’t. You really don’t know.”
Does the commentary sound familiar? It should.
The Lakers (16-17) have spent the first quarter of the season hovering just above or below the .500 mark. All season, they have labored with overlapping injuries to James, Davis and countless role players. This past week, they had a flood of those players unavailable after entering the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols. With a nearly full or depleted roster, the Lakers have struggled forging both chemistry and a definitive identity.
Through it all, the Lakers have preached patience with eventually fielding a full roster and fostering chemistry with 11 new players. They have repeatedly clung onto a dramatic victory or a short winning streak as evidence they are so close to becoming the team they envisioned. Therefore, the Lakers repeated the same season-long rhetoric following a four-game losing streak.
“I think that we’re fine,” Westbrook said. “We feel confident how we’re moving in the right direction. That’s why I don’t panic and why I’m optimistic about our team.”
The Lakers are simply fooling themselves.
These issues go beyond regular-season hiccups that will dampen their marquee Christmas Day game against the Brooklyn Nets (8 ET; ABC/ESPN), a team that has remained in title contention despite only welcoming Kyrie Irving this week after missing the entire season because of his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. These are issues that will likely last for the remaining 49 games and into the playoffs — if the Lakers even advance that far.
Though James has defied Father Time when he has been on the court by offering the same dynamic playmaking, scoring and leadership that has secured him four NBA titles, the Lakers have given little indication his play alone will be enough to become a championship contender or even a serious playoff team.
This won’t end with James simply carrying the Lakers because of sheer will and talent. This will end up with James posting empty calories on a team that may struggle to make the Western Conference Play-In Tournament, let alone advance in a playoff series.
“It’s different. Even in the past, it’s not like we had multiple guys that were out,” James said. “We were just trying to figure out what’s the best way for us to win and how do we win and what’s the best lineups to have on the floor. Then we could get better, better and better. We literally have not had an opportunity to log in anything. We have no chemistry with any lineup from a simple fact that we didn’t log enough minutes.”
Hence, James’ admission on how the unique circumstances of the 2020-21 season compare to what he has experienced in his first 18 NBA seasons:
“It ranks right up at the top of any other challenge I had in my career,” James said after the Lakers’ win over Detroit three days after Thanksgiving. “That actually brings out the best in me, and I love that. I love trying to figure out how we can be better with getting through the mud and getting through adversity and just making it sweeter on the back end. I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface on what team we can be.”
The Lakers haven’t scratched the surface because of many caveats.
The Lakers fielded overlapping injuries to key rotation players. Then, James missed a combined 12 games because of an abdomen injury and a false-positive test. Then, the Lakers had six more players and head coach Frank Vogel enter the league’s Health and Safety Protocols for the past week and possibly counting.
Because of those overlapping absences, the Lakers have fielded 17 different starting lineups. They have tried fostering the right combinations with 11 new players. In Thursday’s game Westbrook offered a mix of brilliance (30 points) and bone-headed plays (five turnovers, three fouls), a development that has become a season-long theme. Same thing with the lack of consistent supporting cast to bolster the team’s offense and defense.
“We don’t need a full roster. We just need a lot of our guys back,” James said. “All of our defensive guys are in the health and safety protocols.”
James listed Avery Bradley, Talen-Horton Tucker, Trevor Ariza and Austin Reaves as players that could have bolstered the team’s defense. Only problem: the Lakers were often terrible and only occasionally solid on defense even when they had at least some of those players available.
Not only have the Lakers lost defensive players through the protocols, they lost Alex Caruso because they worried more about luxury tax savings than ensuring he did not bring his dependable defense to another team. The Lakers sent Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Washington because they believed Westbrook’s presence would make up for it. The Lakers prioritized signing experienced scorers on one-year deals over lockdown defenders. Though Ariza’s prolonged absence has hurt the Lakers on the wings, they hardly made up for it on the frontcourt despite having strong defenders on paper.
Before his injury, Davis lacked the consistent aggressiveness that helped the team win the 2020 NBA title during his first season in a Lakers uniform. DeAndre Jordan has lost the athleticism that once made him a dependable rim protector. Dwight Howard may have described himself as feeling “tired” against San Antonio because he lost his conditioning after entering the protocols this week … but he has committed silly fouls all season.
“We’re going to get out of this part of the season,” Howard said. “We’re going to get out of it. When we do, we’re going to look back and say that is something that we needed.”
The reason for the Lakers’ stubborn optimism points to James and his track record.
“He’s a professional. He’s the best in the world,” Westbrook said. “He understands when he’s healthy how he can play. Obviously, he’s battling through some stuff early on in the season. But when he’s healthy and at full strength, that’s difficult for anybody to stop him.”
Consider James has won NBA titles despite dealing with plenty of adversity in other seasons.
After James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh struggled to fully mesh in their first season together with the Miami Heat, the trio then won two NBA titles in their next three Finals appearances. After James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had hiccups against the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, they overcame a 3-1 series deficit against them the following year. Four years later, James overcame a disrupted training camp and fostered instant chemistry with Davis and a new coaching staff while playing in the NBA bubble.
This year? James admittedly has begun to wonder: Will he ever play with a full roster? Will he ever be part of a consistent rotation? Will he and other teammates have to enter the NBA’s health and safety protocols again?
“Of course, he doesn’t like where our team is at right now and the ups and downs of everything. But he has a big-picture mindset,” Lakers acting head coach David Fizdale said of James. “He really sees it in a way that allows him to be urgent, but not panicky. He can address things and help guys through stuff now with this team because he’s been through it with two other teams. Everything that guys are going through, he’s probably seen it or has been through it himself. So his patience level and his wisdom is what I see him utilizing more with this group.”
James could not have reached that level of patience until experiencing frustration earlier in his career.
“Back when we started slow the first year we got him in Miami, he was ready to tear somebody’s head off,” said Fizdale, who was on the Heat’s coaching staff. “The world was all over him. I just think after going through all of that and the ups and downs of winning and losing, like all of us, hopefully you learn from more of your suffering and your victories. Then you can apply it to the next year. He’s really doing it. It’s really fun to watch.”
It is fun to watch. Less than a week before his 37th birthday, James has continued to delay Father Time.
He won the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week earlier this month after a three-game stretch where he averaged 28.3 points on 60.8% shooting, 8.0 assists and 7.5 rebounds. After a 30-point performance on Dec. 12, James shared how he felt rejuvenated after watching his son play basketball over the weekend and sleeping for eight hours before taking another four-hour nap. And James has even excelled at the center position since Davis’ absence.
“How do I continue how I’m playing? I’ve been doing it for 19 years,” James said earlier this month. “Just keep doing what I’ve been doing. I feel like I’m getting better and better each and every day. I’m getting healthier and healthier. It’s resulted in me being in the right place at the right time.”
But this is neither what the Lakers nor James expected his workload would entail this season. They envisioned that Westbrook would significantly relieve James’ workload. It hasn’t. The Lakers hoped their supporting cast could complement James. It hasn’t.
The Lakers hoped James could play reduced minutes. Both James and his coaches have reluctantly agreed he should play more, averaging 37 minutes in what marks his highest output since the 2016-17 season. The Lakers believed they would have enough frontcourt defenders. Neither James nor his frontcourt mates have done enough. And even with James’ consistent production, the Lakers have still gone only 10-11 when he has played.
“In Miami, he found out he had to be the best player after that first year with D-Wade. The difference now though is I don’t know if they’re good enough, even if he’s the best player,” said NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony. “That’s what they haven’t gotten from Anthony Davis consistently. That really hurts them. At this stage of his career, LeBron can still get the numbers of a dominant player. But he can’t dominate the game the way he used to. That’s where Westbrook and Davis and their ability to play at a high level becomes paramount.”
The Lakers refuse to buy this line of thinking, but eventually they will have no choice but to accept this reality. James has consistently proven no one should bet against him. But the Lakers have shown they don’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt for reasons both within and outside of their control.
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