Column: All the LeBron James hype hasn’t lived up to reality for Lakers
He was the greatest and most celebrated acquisition in franchise history. He was going to immediately carry the team deep into the playoffs. He was going to attract the fellow stars that would eventually lead them to a championship.
His camp reportedly tried to get coach Luke Walton fired.
His hand-picked veteran acquisitions were involved in a heated locker room incident with Walton.
His young teammates have had to listen to the believable chants that James wanted them traded for Davis.
He has sat with three vacant seats between him and those teammates during a recent blowout loss.
He has missed 17 games with a slow-healing groin injury that could be related to the wear on his 34-year-old body.
He has told reporters that he wasn’t chasing a championship in Los Angeles, saying, “There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake.’’
He later attempted to clarify those statements, saying, “I want to win every single day,’’ but many Lakers fans were not appeased.
James has clearly done plenty in his time in Los Angeles, creating drama with every breath, putting the Lakers in the headlines with every news cycle. But few of his major contributions have had anything to do with the actual playing of basketball.
At the All-Star break, the Lakers were 28-29, which is only five wins more than they were at this time last year. They are still not among the top eight teams in the Western Conference that will make the playoffs. They are no lock to make the postseason for the first time in six years, and certainly not a good bet to win a playoff series.
This is not the fault of James’ play. When he’s on the court, he’s been spectacular, he plays hard every minute, he’s been everything as advertised, equaling or bettering his career averages in most major statistics.
But he just hasn’t played enough, and some of his oft-injured teammates like Lonzo Ball haven’t played enough. If there is such a thing as a LeBron Effect, the Lakers are still waiting for it to happen.
It seems like every moment of we’re-so-lucky-to-have-LeBron brilliance has been followed by a he’s-not-Superman reality check.
One night in a stirring Staples Center victory against Portland, James scored 44 points, 28 in the second half, while passing Wilt Chamberlain to move into fifth place on the all-time scoring list.
Three nights later, the Lakers lost at Orlando.
Remember the cool closing sequence against his buddy Dwyane Wade in the Lakers’ victory over Miami at Staples Center?
Three nights later, they lost at Houston.
Just last week, James had a triple-double in the dramatic last-second win against Boston.
Three days later, the Lakers were blown out in Philadelphia.
For all his greatness, James is not this team’s veteran leader. That role has been taken by Rajon Rondo, who has become the most respected and trusted figure in the young locker room, something which was evident in the team’s joyous postgame celebration after his buzzer beater in Boston.
For as spectacular as he looks in a Lakers uniform — which still appears two sizes too small for his almost mythical physique — James still doesn’t seem to be a Laker, this perception of a disconnect only reinforced by his comments about not needing to win another championship.
The Lakers didn’t win 16 titles by being the icing on somebody’s cake. The Lakers have always been the cake. To describe them otherwise is to trivialize their legacy and minimize the need to recapture their greatness.
Isn’t that why James is here? Or is it? The question that was posed the moment he showed up in town last summer persists even stronger today. Did James really come to Los Angeles to win another championship, or is he content to play out his career while building his Hollywood businesses?
In 2012, after the Lakers lost to the Dallas Mavericks by eight points in the season opener, newcomer Dwight Howard had a similarly tepid response that framed his only season here.
“Embarrassed? I’ve been in home openers where we’ve lost by 30 points … it takes time,’’ he said.
Howard was never a Laker. James realistically has but a three-year window to become a Laker, and it has to start now.
The backstage drama has to end. The winning basketball has to begin.
James needs to engage with his teammates because they’re not going anywhere. He needs to not just wow them, but lead them, to a place befitting his greatness.
James truly has nothing to prove to anyone, but he has much to show to Lakers fans, specifically getting this team to the postseason and winning at least one round once they get there.
Anything less and his first year would be an absolute failure. To not even make the playoffs would make this first year a complete waste.
James will have plenty of time this summer to focus on wooing better talent and picking his coach. To do all that behind-the-curtain work while the play is still happening is unfair to Lakers fans who are spending inordinate amounts of time and money to buy into one thing.
LeBron James, the basketball player.
Not LeBron James the general manager, or LeBron James the coach, or LeBron James the heavily decorated superstar who is content to spend the rest of his career simply loving life in L.A.
Remember James’ first basket as a Laker in the season opener in Portland? It was a tomahawk dunk, and John Ireland’s tremendous radio call still gives me chills.
That was fun. From the greatest player ever, the Lakers need a lot more of that, and a lot less of the other stuff.
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