LeBron James has an annual tradition: He coasts through the regular season, then activates “playoff mode” just in time to make a remarkable Finals run. Each year, doubters inevitably claim that he has ceded his title as the best player in the world only to end up looking awfully foolish. But his first season in LA has been disastrous enough to legitimately pose the question: has the King’s reign come to an end?
Rumors started buzzing when LeBron joined a young, if not immature, Lakers squad this past offseason. Was he conceding the possibility of competing for championships in exchange for a lavish Hollywood lifestyle and opportunities for business ventures? Would he trade the home-grown core for established superstars?
The Lakers’ downward spiral began, ironically enough, in a seemingly season-defining win over the Warriors. Early in the third quarter, LeBron drove to the lane and lost control of the basketball. As he reached for the ball, he pulled his groin muscle and, though originally alleviating concerns over the injury’s severity, missed the next month. Despite stepping up to blow out the Warriors in LeBron’s absence, the Lakers’ supporting cast would struggle without their leader, accruing a 6–12 record.
Even upon the King’s return, the Lakers have failed to regain their early season mojo. They have now lost five games in a row, and six of their last seven, effectively killing their playoff chances. LeBron, while ranking at a not-terrible 46th in defensive real plus-minus, often exhibits an embarrassing lack of effort on the less glamorous end of the floor. In one viral sequence, young forward Kyle Kuzma had to shove him forward in order to close out on a shooter. A veteran leader, let alone arguably the greatest player in the game, needs to set the tone for his teammates. LeBron’s disengagement is taking a toll: After placing as high as sixth in defensive efficiency earlier in the season, the Lakers have fallen to 14th.
LeBron cannot afford to relax given the Lakers’ poor roster construction. In a head-scratching attempt to invert the tried-and-true formula of surrounding him with shooters, the Lakers’ front office signed poor-shooting veterans who also carried off-the-court issues. The roster has thus amounted to a young core desperately trying to prove themselves to ownership (aka LeBron), disgruntled veterans unhappy with their minutes and an increasingly frustrated LeBron. The chemistry disintegrated when the Lakers publicly tried to trade nearly half its roster for Pelicans star Anthony Davis. LeBron has done little to repair this fracture, instead questioning his teammates’ “sense of urgency” to the media.
It’s difficult to see any silver linings in this inaugural season in LA. Management has proved incompetent, the young players often look apprehensive in the spotlight and LeBron now has another year of mileage on his body. The King has no escape route available; his four-year contract locks him in for the foreseeable future. Unless the Lakers can somehow convince a star to join this debacle of a team or trade for one without gutting their roster, LeBron’s future championship possibilities appear overwhelmingly bleak.