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Column: Lakers’ season wasn’t a failure? LeBron James makes excuses instead of being a leader

LeBron James talks about Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel, looking back on the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers season as the team misses out on playoffs.

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Habits of the past can resurface at unexpected times, as one particularly curious example did at the Lakers’ practice facility Monday when it was broadcast around the world.

LeBron James passed up a critical shot.

With the Lakers only a day removed from the end of another cataclysmic season and looking ahead to an uncertain future, they desperately needed a leader.

Instead, what they received was more wishy-washiness from the passive-aggressive superstar who calls himself a king.

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The Lakers are lost, but James didn’t provide them with any direction. They are a deflated franchise, but he didn’t offer any words of inspiration. They are dysfunctional, but he didn’t accept blame for his role in their failure in a way that could have started rebuilding a culture of accountability after their shameful scapegoating of Frank Vogel.

LeBron James and other Lakers talked Monday about their disappointing season and what the future might bring.

April 11, 2022

Speaking just a couple of hours before Vogel’s firing was made official, James wouldn’t even acknowledge that a season in which the Lakers went 33-49 and missed the playoffs was a failure.

“It’s not a failure at all,” James said. “We came to work every single day, put our hard hats on and tried to get better every day. And the results just didn’t happen for us. But it’s not a failure.”

Asked how much responsibility he took for how the team’s season unfolded, he replied with a couple of lines of well-practiced lip service.

“Obviously, if you follow me in any of my career, when we don’t succeed, I take a lot of the responsibility,” he said. “That’s just who I am. I wish I could’ve been a lot better in leading this franchise this year.”

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So, basically, he said he was taking responsibility without specifying for what.

Regardless of how much blame he actually deserves, when the best player on a team holds himself to a high standard of accountability, it forces everyone else in the organization to do the same. That wasn’t the case here.

James could have talked about his body language, which often betrayed his lack of confidence in his less-talented teammates. He could have pointed to his inconsistent defensive play, which was a team-wide problem. He could have acknowledged his shortcomings as a talent evaluator and recruiter, which contributed to an imbalanced roster that was too old.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel, right, talks to LeBron James during a win over the New York Knicks.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel, right, talks to LeBron James during a win over the New York Knicks in February. Vogel was fired by the Lakers on Monday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

If anything, he continued to distance himself from the personnel decisions that produced one of the most disastrous seasons in franchise history. Never mind that he hosted meetings with potential trade targets at his house.

“Ask me my opinion, I’m going to give my opinion,” James said. “But at the end of the day, they’re going to make the decision that they feel is best for the franchise.”

Asked what he entered the season expecting of his ultimately unproductive partnership with Russell Westbrook that he helped broker, James replied, “I don’t put any expectations on anything.”

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The only direct apology he made was for playing in just 56 games, but the admission sounded as if it were designed to support his excuse about how the Lakers were ravaged by injuries.

What made the lack of leadership problematic is that if James doesn’t provide it, there’s no one else in the organization who can.

Once upon a time the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook bet was a sign of hope. Then the reality of an aging roster, and injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, set in.

April 8, 2022

There’s a reason the Lakers are in disarray and it starts at the top with owner Jeanie Buss, who isn’t the visionary her father was.

The last couple of days have also confirmed longstanding suspicions about general manager Rob Pelinka’s qualifications to run the basketball operations department of the sport’s most decorated franchise.

Immediately after a season-ending overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night, Vogel learned he was about to be fired from a tweet by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who was presumably tipped off by the Lakers’ front office. Pelinka didn’t speak to Vogel about the decision until Monday.

“In terms of media reports that are speculative and unsourced, we don’t spend any of our time reacting to that type of information in terms of how we make decisions here,” Pelinka said.

Wasn’t Pelinka embarrassed by how this played out? Didn’t Vogel deserve better than to be informed of his fate via social media?

Former All-Star guard Russell Westbrook said Monday during exit interviews that he and the Lakers did not have a successful season “by any means.”

April 11, 2022

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“He factually heard about our decision in an in-person meeting from me this morning,” Pelinka said.

Pelinka said he wasn’t “trying to spin or sugarcoat” but went on to describe the train wreck he oversaw in the most charitable terms imaginable. The roster “did not work,” he said. The season was “disappointing.”

Asking a player to redefine the culture of an entire organization would be unreasonable under normal circumstances, but James wanted this. The absence of leadership is what forced the Lakers to grant James and agent Rich Paul the degree of influence they enjoy.

James has to be better than to continue trumpeting the championship he won in a pandemic-shortened season when his three other years with the team were abject failures. He has to embrace oversized responsibilities, just as the likes of Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant did before him. Now, more than ever, he has to lead.

On the same day that LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, GM Rob Pelinka and others address the media, the Lakers fire coach Frank Vogel. Read more here.

April 11, 2022

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