Will this season wreck the reputation of King James?
LeBron James is arguably the most polarizing athlete of the last 15 years. The attention reached new levels this past summer when James departed Cleveland for the bright lights of Hollywood to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The move was immediately both criticized and praised at the same time. James was joining a young unproven roster in a competitive Western Conference. Over the next couple of weeks, the Lakers rounded out their roster with a group of controversial players (notably Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Rajon Rondo) that quickly made the Lakers roster one of the most intriguing in the league. Now, almost nine months later, the Lakers have officially been eliminated from playoff contention and have a worse record right now than they did at this time last year without LeBron. But this Lakers season has lived up to the anticipation in terms of the drama and headlines. The wins and success? Not so much. There is so much to be analyzed from this Lakers season. For now, we are going to focus on LeBron’s season/legacy and not the injuries, drama (dancing Lance’s air guitars are a personal favorite) and off-court antics that derailed the Lakers this season. The debate is simple: have the last 9 months tarnished LeBron’s legacy?
SIDE 1: YES, LeBron will be viewed differently now
The basis of this argument is actually not so much due to LeBron’s on-court play, but rather his attitude in general. From a high-level statistical perspective, the 2018-19 season was one of LeBron’s best on paper. As of March 27th, LBJ is averaging 27.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 8.2 APG while shooting over 50% from the field. A deeper dive into advanced stats paints a much different picture that outlines a sharp decline from LeBron in several ways, including free throw percentage and defensive metrics. But again, his tarnished reputation has more to do with his questionable handling of teammates than his on-court play.
In some ways, LeBron ushered in the new era of the NBA, where players sign shorter deals and get to basically hand pick their teammates. That makes the Lakers roster this year all the more interesting. I think we all know by now that LeBron went to L.A. for several off-court reasons, as well as to team up with other superstars and make a run at a few more championships. He didn’t go there to develop extremely young players and go through the growing pains with them for multiple years. LeBron and the Lakers whiffed on star free agents from last summer and the team was not able to execute any trade to get James some help when he needed it most. There is no doubt that the front office is more to blame for this than James.
However, LeBron can be blamed for how this team fell apart as the season went on. Remember, the Lakers were sitting pretty at fourth in the Western Conference before James went down on Christmas Day. Of course, injuries are part of the game and it would be unfair to even think about blaming James for getting injured for the longest stretch of his career. However, it was during that time things fell apart, and it wasn’t just on the court. We all saw the weird images of James seated alone at the end of the bench away from his teammates as the blowout losses piled up. Then, just prior to his injury, James made comments about how it would be “amazing” and “incredible” to play with Anthony Davis. The following weeks ultimately tore up this team’s season as James and the Lakers, as well as the Pelicans, were public about trade talks involving basically all of the Lakers young core in exchange for Davis. The team separation became increasingly evident.
Two weeks after the trade talks blew up and the trade deadline passed, LeBron publicly became locked in with his playoff mode “activated” comments. Ultimately, this was smoke and mirrors from LeBron and the season became unhinged from there. The blowout losses continued. James continued to throw teammates under the bus. He publicly questioned his teammates desire to make the postseason. And the Lakers season perished.
In a way, James simply gave up on this team. The eye test told us this. James was simply not trying on defense, yelling at teammates and putting up empty stats in loss after loss. Furthermore, James has been seen throughout his career as a coach killer (most notably when he endorsed the firing of David Blatt early in the 2015 season when the Cavaliers were first in the Eastern Conference) and there seem to be increasing rumors that Luke Walton might not make it to opening night as the team’s coach next year. The most ironic part is that James chose this team 9 months ago. He could have gone to any team in the league. Yes, there were many other reasons besides basketball to go to Hollywood, but ultimately the Lakers roster was what it was and LeBron failed as a leader to bring this roster together and make a playoff run like so many of us thought was inevitable. James gave up on this season and in the grand scheme of things, maybe this season was just a hiccup in a storied career. James’ public handling of his teammates and general disinterest in this season can certainly be seen as a hit on his legacy.
SIDE 2: NO, this disaster of a season will not have a lasting impact on LeBron’s legacy
The argument for this side is simply that, as briefly mentioned above, this season was a small hiccup in one of the greatest careers in NBA history. Ultimately, the determining factor is what happens to James and the Lakers moving forward. Conceivably, the Lakers could acquire a superstar or two this summer and James goes on to bring a title or two back to L.A., making this season forgotten. However, if the Lakers strike out on a superstar again this summer and LeBron has to traverse next season with a similar roster, there is no doubt that his reputation may start to take a more sizeable hit. But there is no point in speculating the future right now. We can only talk about what we know and what happened this year. In many people’s minds, LeBron’s legacy has been cemented and almost nothing he could do would permanently tarnish that (outside of something ridiculously stupid or crazy. See Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, or OJ Simpson). LeBron actually recently said it himself that he believes his place as the greatest basketball player of all time was cemented when he famously brought his Cavaliers squad back from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA finals to win his third championship. Furthermore, a lot of the factors that derailed the Lakers this season were out of James’ control. His own injury can’t be blamed on him. The Lakers front office screwed up the Davis situation more than LeBron did. Either way, it is hard to see this season causing people to discredit LeBron long term.
The beauty of sports and debates is that there is never a concrete answer to many sports questions. Perhaps the most active debate over the last few years involves the basketball GOAT, with LeBron and some guy named Michael Jordan. LeBron has the accolades, stats and general clout to make a case for him as the GOAT. The one thing he lacks in the GOAT debate is championships. I will never knock LeBron for his finals record, only for total championships. For example, if he gets to six championships and is 6-6, I think it would be more impressive than Jordan’s 6-0 simply because it is more impressive to reach 12 Finals than 6.
Regardless, everyone can agree a few more rings could help round out LeBron’s case. He came to L.A. to team up with other superstars and win championships. Neither of those goals were accomplished this year and it actually could not have gone much worse. Only time will tell if LeBron’s exodus out west helped or harmed his overall legacy. For now, I think this season and his handling of questionable situations scraped his legacy a bit.
What do YOU think? Sound off on LeBron below!
NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax