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LeBron’s New Reality

It would be preposterous to doubt James, but so too would be ignoring how the Lakers star got here, staring down the earliest playoff exit of his career

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James has built an unimpeachable basketball legacy on the margin of error. On setting up teammates early and taking over late. On being the smartest player on the floor, perhaps ever. On going up with his defender and making a play after they’ve touched back down. On dropping the opening games of playoff series as he methodically works out the matchup in his mind. On gaining steam. On scoring more points per game in elimination games than any player in NBA history. On making the Finals as a no. 4 seed. On going down 3-1 only to come back from 3-1.

Or in this case, going down 3-2 against the West’s no. 2 seed while the status of his superstar teammate hangs in the air. James has been tested plenty in his 18 years in the NBA, but so much of what’s happening around him now is strangely new. LeBron has never been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round before, but until Tuesday, his teams hadn’t lost momentum by dropping two consecutive games in a first-round series, either. Even after everything we’ve seen LeBron accomplish, from the four titles to the 10 Finals appearances, his team’s path forward in these playoffs is marked by striking improbability: first with an exacting game against the Suns on Thursday with a championship defense on the line, and—if the Lakers are good enough and lucky enough—another game just like it after that.

Phoenix is an especially inconvenient opponent under these circumstances. A lesser team might lose focus or ease up in a way that James could exploit, preying on lapses until he evened the series and then seized it. The Suns don’t work that way; even when they don’t have all the answers—an inevitability for a team that’s barely sampled the playoffs—they learn from their mistakes and keep grinding. They are exceedingly well prepared, a credit to both Monty Williams and Chris Paul. The playoffs have the power to show a team’s faults to the entire world, but they can also affirm that a team is exactly what they seemed to be. The Suns are in command of this series for all the same reasons they were dominant in the regular season, and the Lakers will have trouble surviving their current predicament for the same reasons they wound up as the seventh seed.

What was one of the worst offenses in the league during the regular season has turned out to be one of the worst offenses in the playoffs. It all comes back to injuries and, more precisely, the Lakers’ inability to withstand them. No team is well suited for life without its best players, but the historical power of LeBron would lead us to believe that his team could at least scrape competence with Anthony Davis sidelined by compounding injuries. They haven’t. “We got our ass kicked,” James said after a 30-point loss in Game 5. “It’s just that simple.” Over the course of the regular season, the Lakers went 23-22 when one or both of James or Davis was out of the lineup. In this series, they’re losing all of their minutes save for when the two stars are on the floor together:

Laker Constellations

Lineup Net Rating
Lineup Net Rating
LeBron and AD 10.7
LeBron without AD -4.4
AD without LeBron -40.0*
Neither -16.11
*Not a typo. It’s really that bad. Data courtesy of PBPStats

Where is the range of this supporting cast? Where is its capacity to generate even the bare minimum of passable offense? Winning the title takes healthy superstars playing at the top of their game, but getting there also requires learning to do without.

After playing well into last October to claim the 2020 title, the Lakers revamped their roster in a way that would ostensibly help them manage the rigors of another fast-approaching regular season. Danny Green and the 28th pick in the draft were flipped for a more creative guard in Dennis Schröder. The Lakers poached Montrezl Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, from their cohabitant rivals, the Clippers. With the allure of championship pursuits, they enticed Wesley Matthews from the Bucks, Marc Gasol from the Raptors, and later Andre Drummond following his buyout from the Cavaliers. Somehow, none of those moves have helped L.A. manage its most vulnerable minutes.

Frank Vogel outright dropped Harrell from his rotation in the middle of this series. Harrell played plenty over the course of the season, but the Lakers never quite figured out how to feature him in their offense—perhaps because they knew, as the Clippers did, that leaning on him wouldn’t be a viable option in the playoffs anyway. Schröder’s role makes him less replaceable in the lineup, but when the Lakers desperately needed his scoring in Game 5 to offset the absence of Davis and LeBron’s own persistent limitations due to injury, the point guard—criticized at past stops for looking for his own offense first—turned in an incomprehensible goose egg. Tuesday was a perfect opportunity for Drummond to rule the paint in a way that playing with Davis rarely allows. Yet he was so underwhelming (and so thoroughly outplayed by a 22-year-old opponent in Deandre Ayton) that Vogel benched Drummond for most of the second half. He would finish the most important game of the Lakers’ season to date with seven points and four turnovers.

The expectation (and burden) of LeBron is the idea that he can lift any remotely viable supporting cast to the highest levels of the sport. “These shoulders were built for a reason,” he told reporters this week, “and if it takes for me to put more on top of it then so be it. Win, lose, or draw. I’m ready for the challenge.” It would be preposterous to doubt him; there’s no question that James can still drive a contender in a way that few players can, though with things as they are, the Lakers need to be realistic about what that contention looks like. Cameron Payne has smoked him for uncontested layups, and the sorts of wiry, pesky defenders LeBron usually hunts down and power-posts into the stanchion have already blocked him three times in this series. It’s clear that James isn’t quite himself. Moving forward could mean accepting that as normal for a player who turns 37 years old in December and expects to play deep into every grueling season. The Lakers need to build around the dominance James can still reach regularly and the idea that he might need to manage some games in a more passive gear.

Maybe they already have. It’s impossible to accurately appraise the Lakers without Davis involved, though they could again be without him for Game 6 if their medical staff doesn’t clear him for both a groin injury and a hyperextended knee. But even when Davis does return to his pick-and-roll-busting, hyper-versatile best, life for the Lakers only gets harder from here. Building a championship team around LeBron means something different in 2021 than it did in 2019, not because I say so, but because the unflagging march of time does. The days keep coming, and as they do, the margins keep thinning.