For LeBron and Lakers, reality show now on the court
NBA.com Global on Feb 28, 2019 07:47 AM
FILE - LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 14: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shakes hands with fans as he walks off the court after the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 14, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES -- Here’s a pitch for the next show to be developed by SpringHill Entertainment, the production company co-founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter: What about an inside look at a glamorous NBA franchise and how a locker room collapsed under burning issues? The star player becomes a flashpoint for the boiling frustration, and they scramble to find elusive solutions as the season begins to pass them by.
And, get this: The main role can be played by … wait for it … LeBron himself!
Hollywood loves nothing more than a deliciously dramatic reality show, and how convenient is it that one is unspooling right before LeBron’s very eyes, or shall we say, very weary and confused eyes? Just as he wields power over his growing entertainment empire, he’s also mainly responsible for the situation buckling the Lakers as they stumble and flail and threaten to crumble during this stretch run toward the playoffs.
Should they blow this chance -- and it’s getting slippery by the game -- it would be a rude gut-punch, though not a damaging one, to LeBron’s legacy, which he cares so deeply about. It would raise questions moving forward about his leadership style, his curious link to the player agency he helped form, his degree of power within the Lakers (and whether it’s too expansive). And, most importantly, it would raise questions about his ability to attract A-list free agents before either his contract runs out or Father Time taps him on the shoulder.
At the moment, the Lakers are broken, far from what team president Magic Johnson and LeBron and others projected upon signing last summer. Where do we start?
A number of teammates, according to those close to them, resented LeBron’s role in the Anthony Davis chase -- when half the rotation was ready to be shipped to New Orleans -- and also his comments after the All-Star break, when LeBron seemed to blame everyone but himself for embarrassing losses to the Pelicans and Grizzlies. Most of the locker room held great admiration for LeBron before the season began, and how could they not? But the mood is shifting ... and how could it not?
LeBron's also playing for a coach who -- if the whispers are true -- he doesn’t totally endorse. So, how do you expect Luke Walton to feel?
LeBron’s play since returning from his groin injury hasn’t been stellar, with notable defensive lapses, which perhaps could be blamed on age and LeBron’s tendency in the past to pick his spots on when to play both ends of the floor. He could get away with that when his teams in Cleveland and Miami won. That's not so true now.
Given all that, some perspective is needed and should be heard through the noise of the past few days. The Lakers simply wouldn’t be in this position if LeBron didn’t miss a month. Also, Lonzo Ball, who was developing nicely before twisting an ankle, still hasn’t returned.
Poor defense, turnovers and misfires from the free throw line are team-wide problems, not just a LeBron problem. Besides, even on his worst days, LeBron is more productive and consistent and far beyond the next best Laker, whoever that is.
Finally, there is this: This was always designated as a bridge year with a still-maturing young core that needed seasoning and vets on one-year contracts. But of course, LeBron is being paid and treated as a savior, and making the playoffs was supposed to be a given. Plus, some of the Lakers' losses have been downright shameful.
The Davis drama, which seemed to have LeBron’s fingerprints all over it, not only hasn’t helped matters, but also caused plenty of grief and distrust among his teammates. Does LeBron have their backs, or is he trying to shove a knife in them? Because of his obvious clout, not a single player will confront LeBron for answers about where they stand. They’re either too young and intimidated, or too old and deep into their careers and don’t want to jeopardize any chances of getting an extension.
This is a different climate for LeBron. He was held in high regard in Cleveland and Miami locker rooms. He was the superstar who always and willingly shared his off-the-court riches with teammates -- gifting them designer headphones, expensive cell phones and anything else he hawked. When they went out with him socially, they could count on automatic entry beyond doors closed to most people. It was good to be teammates with LeBron. He took care of them, looked out for them, elevated them.
And now? Given what is transpiring with the Lakers, his current teammates probably shouldn’t expect any cameos in "Space Jam 2."
It’s also a case study in the power LeBron has within the Lakers. He’s more or less partners with Magic, a relationship he didn’t have with Pat Riley in Miami -- Riles drew the line more than once with LeBron -- and not to this extent in Cleveland. That kind of power and voice within the organization doesn’t go unnoticed among teammates.
Suppose, for example, the Lakers strike out on trading for Davis this summer. Can you imagine the handful of players dangled in that trade returning to the team next season, willing and anxious to forgive and forget?
There is a temporary fix. The Lakers can start winning, starting with Wednesday's (Thursday, PHL time) game against the Pelicans. They can douse the internal and external fire by moving up the standings in the West and making a run for the postseason. They can do so with LeBron being “activated”, dropping MVP-like performances and serving as an example to follow.
Every team involved in the chase for one of the last few West playoff spots (Kings, Clippers, Spurs) have flaws. Yet none of them also have LeBron.
Should the Lakers keep stumbling, then all eyes will be on LeBron and how he handles that. Will he play out a meaningless season, a distant experience for a player who’s made the last eight NBA Finals? Or will he check out?
Wherever LeBron and the Lakers go from here, drama will follow, and the biggest surprise is this isn’t being caught on film and ready to be produced. Is it not entertaining enough?
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