It’s easy to understand how the best current player for the Lakers can’t be considered as the best Laker in history.
If you close your eyes and imagine the moment — the one that is LeBron James at his LeBron James-iest — it probably won’t be the same as the person next to you going through the same exercise.
Maybe you see the 18-year-old kid with the long arms and the longer shorts entering the NBA with unmatched hype and almost immediately fulfilling expectations. Maybe you see him sitting inside a Boys and Girls Club turning in an instant from a Midwest hero to a South Beach bad guy. Maybe it’s him bouncing in front of a Miami crowd decked in all white, celebrating his first championship. Or it’s him chasing down Andre Iguodala from behind for a blocked shot in Oakland. Or maybe you see him in the streets of Cleveland, surrounded by adoring fans hanging off of every possible structure.
It could be this or any other snippet from two decades worth of highlights.
Yet if you’re being totally honest with yourself, do you see him in purple and gold?
It’s why, somehow, either the greatest or second-greatest player of all time can’t crack the top of any list of the greatest Laker of all time.
Timing and circumstance have kept James from fully entering the top tier of all-time Lakers, joining the team for the last chapters of his prime when the roster was either too young or too injury-prone or too poorly constructed for him to consistently compete for titles like in the Showtime era or when Kobe Bryant won five championships across a decade.
It doesn’t help his connection to the franchise’s greats that his highest high, the 2020 NBA championship, occurred inside a bubble at the ESPN Walt Disney World campus near Orlando, Fla., where James and his teammates were forced to celebrate in relative isolation compared with that scene in Cleveland.
So where’s the disconnect?
For starters, James’ nomadic NBA career has made him his own separate entity and, in some ways, bigger than any one team, Lakers included.
Days after the Chargers drafted safety Derwin James with their first-round draft pick in 2018, he stood in the back of their media room in Costa Mesa pantomiming jump shots at a trash can. Asked who his favorite basketball team is, James kept shooting as he answered.
“LeBron James,” he said.
Like no player before, James used free agency to create situations he wanted, relying at times on short-term contracts to hold leverage over his current employer. He’s won titles in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Miami as well as for Team USA — success spread like butter across warm toast. It doesn’t belong to anyone — it stretches from coast to coast and around the globe.
The numbers are split up, James playing more than 62% of his games with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s where he scored 62.38% of his points, had 60.62% of his rebounds and distributed 62% of his assists. The Heat got 21.37% of his scoring, 21.79% of his rebounds and 19.71% of his assists.
The Lakers have gotten less production from James than any other team he played for — 16.25% of his scoring, 17.58% of his rebounds and 18.29% of his assists.
Every point scored by Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor was for the Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played more than 500 more games for the Lakers than he did for the Bucks, scoring nearly 10,000 more points in purple and gold than he did in Milwaukee.
Some of this has been a combination of bad luck and aging for James.
A groin injury cut his first season short in Los Angeles, robbing the team of the chance to find out if James could’ve carried a group of former first-rounders in the postseason. His second season was engulfed in controversy, beginning with a U.S.-China-NBA controversy and pausing with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In between those points, James had what’s probably his signature moment as a member of the organization when he directly addressed Lakers fans in the franchise’s first game after Bryant’s death.
It’s a bit of unfortunate trivia for James and the Lakers, but the star hasn’t won a playoff series in Los Angeles (the Lakers have made the postseason just twice in his four years with the team).
Still, when he’s been on the court, he’s been defying age and hanging onto his prime in a way no one has done before. After turning 30, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 25 points two more times before he retired. James has averaged at least 25 points a game in every season of his 19-year career except for one — his rookie year.
James has had great moments on the court for the Lakers, out-of-nowhere blocked shots, three-point shots from the midcourt logo, twisting dunks and 50-point outbursts. His legacy is, without question, already decided as either the best or second-best basketball player.
LeBron James is bigger than any team. It’s the way he’s wanted it. And, it’s why, in this case, that he can’t be at the top of the greatest players in Lakers history.
Who is the greatest Laker? As the franchise marks its 75th season, the Los Angeles Times staff ranked the top 75 Lakers. See the list and more in the November 14, 2022 issue of the Los Angeles Times.
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