For the Lakers, at some point it becomes time to be solution-oriented.
Los Angeles is now 14–21 after a loss to the Heat on Wednesday. You can still assign blame for the team’s current tailspin if you want. The front office deserves plenty for a series of ineffective moves dating back years. LeBron has to take ownership for championing some of those moves. Maybe you even want to throw in Darvin Ham’s rotations or injuries. It doesn’t matter now. The bottom line is, do the Lakers still want to win while one of the game’s all-time greats is on their roster?
It’s a question James has not so subtly been alluding to throughout this season, and he did so again Wednesday night.
“I’m a winner, and I want to win,” James said after the loss. “And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion. That has always been my goal since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio.
“And I know it takes steps to get there, but once you get there and know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
You don’t need to have had a perfect score on your SAT to interpret those comments as James’s frustration with his predicament in Los Angeles. Sure, there is accountability for everyone to go around in Los Angeles. Yes, LeBron is a higher-maintenance star than most. He is also holding up his end of the bargain on the court, defying the rules of superstardom, and the Lakers are seemingly content to sit on their hands and do nothing about it.
I know it is not simple to snap your fingers and conjure up a trade overnight. It takes two (or three) to tango. And opponents know the Lakers are desperate. Still, the seemingly snail’s pace at which Los Angeles’s front office is moving to upgrade the roster could have dire consequences. At seven games under .500, the Lakers are 3½ games behind the Warriors for the final play-in spot in the West. With Anthony Davis out for the foreseeable future, the team is in serious danger of falling too far behind in the playoff race, without their 2023 first-round pick to show for it. And all of this is happening while James is still averaging 28/8/6 on nearly 50% shooting a night.
Not only are the Lakers in danger of wasting the fourth season of James’s tenure, they’re also setting the stage for a potentially acrimonious summer. Though LeBron signed an extension before the season (a decision that remains head-scratching), he effectively has only one more year left on his deal thanks to a player option at the end of the contract. Could James really request a trade if things continue to go south? It would be a risky public gambit, but also hard to argue with if the team continues to not even compete for a playoff spot. With lesser stars constantly trying to leave for greener pastures, why wouldn’t he want out if his objective is still to win?
Does Los Angeles really want to deal with that embarrassment? The organization’s entire model seemingly is based around chasing and taking care of stars. What would it say about the franchise if one of the best ever wanted out? And remember, the Lakers were in development hell for much of the 2010s, missing the playoffs every year from ’14 to ’19. They also missed out on signing stars routinely. Alienating LeBron—even if public sympathy for him is low, and even if they haven’t been that successful with him—would be a bad look for Los Angeles and likely push them into irrelevance.
Simply put, the Lakers are a mess teetering on disaster. They’ve lost five of six. Davis’s health is a concern. James is publicly wondering about the purpose of this season. The franchise is inviting questions about whether their stars will force them to blow this all up. It’s an embarrassing place to be for everyone involved. Some may think this is largely LeBron’s own doing, and those people may even revel in his demise. People can argue whose fault it is that the season is slipping away. What’s inarguable is James is still playing at an incredibly high level, and the onus is now on the front office to do something about it.