His body has already failed him. Now, the reach of LeBron James’ influence has also proven limited.
The NBA’s trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon with Anthony Davis still on the New Orleans Pelicans, and the whole LeBron-in-L.A. project suddenly feels as if it could go the way of the infamous Dwight Howard and Steve Nash experiment.
Declaring James’ move to the Lakers a failure would be premature. Complete the trade for Davis in the offseason or find a second superstar on the free-agent market and the Lakers can still be the team James envisioned when he signed with them. Any team with James on its roster is always a move or two from contending for a championship.
The pertinent question at this moment is whether the Lakers can make the necessary moves before it’s too late — specifically, before the 34-year-old James is too old.
From strictly a basketball perspective, James’ decision to play for the Lakers never really made sense. Only a championship would be considered a success for a player of his stature and a flagship franchise such as the Lakers. Considering how little the Lakers had going for them outside of James, the only reason to think he could win here was that James appeared to believe he could.
James often sees plays unfold before others do. When thinking of how the Lakers would build around him, maybe he was also a step or two ahead of everyone else.
Only there now has to be skepticism about some of the assumptions he made, starting with his claim that his prime would extend far beyond that of the ordinary player. The once-indestructible James was sidelined for 17 games because of a strained groin, which is typically what happens when a player his age sustains that type of injury.
The key figure in this part of the plan was his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
From the time Paul signed Davis as a client in September, Davis’ possible move to the Lakers was widely speculated.
By his actions, James has become a champion of players’ rights in the NBA, transferring the power of who will play where from owners and executives to the players. James constructed a champion in Miami and another in Cleveland.
Paul’s efforts to force the Pelicans to trade Davis to the Lakers marked the next step of the movement, but were several orders of magnitude more brazen than anything previously attempted. Davis was a bonafide franchise player who was under contract for another season and a half.
Paul did everything in his power to facilitate a deal, from making Davis’ trade demands public to making the Lakers the only possible destination by declaring his client wouldn’t sign an extension with any other team that had comparable players to offer in exchange for him.
The Pelicans refused to give in, not even after the Lakers offered them a package that included Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two first-round draft picks and close to $18 million in salary relief.
The game of chicken will presumably continue in the summer.
Paul can continue to limit the Pelicans’ options by insisting Davis won’t sign an extension if traded to certain teams. The Pelicans will then have to decide whether to acquiesce to Paul’s demands and trade Davis to the Lakers, send Davis elsewhere for a modest return, or hold on to him through next season and lose him for nothing in free agency.
James tried to downplay, or distance himself from, his agent’s failed power play, telling reporters in Boston, “[There’s] nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. So everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. Even though I love the process of everything that I go through to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to compete for championships, there’s nothing that I’m chasing or that I feel I need to end my career on.”
Has a legacy-conscious all-time great suddenly stopped caring about his legacy? Probably not. James knows the situation still can be salvaged.
But a disaster scenario has also emerged as a very real possibility, one in which James has to play out his last seasons with talent-deprived teammates who think he wanted them traded. James received a glimpse of that horrifying version of the future Tuesday night, when Ingram was serenaded with chants of, “LeBron’s gonna trade you!” in a blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez