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Can This Version of LeBron Lead the Lakers Past the Warriors?

James’s performance on an injured foot in Round 1 was remarkable, but L.A. may need more from him in order to beat the defending champs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James’s 20th regular season was subject to more celebration and drama than analysis. Somehow, it already feels underrated. At 38 years old, on his way to becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, King James submitted 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game, with a true shooting percentage that barely dipped below his career average and the league’s sixth-highest usage rate.

Despite competing in lineups that fit his skill set like a prom tuxedo, James stayed efficient while shepherding a Lakers offense that was incredible when he played without Anthony Davis. Only Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged more attempts in the restricted area, where James shot 74.3 percent (Antetokounmpo finished at 74.7 percent).

Now, as an idealized icon who’s effortlessly combined athleticism, power, and unparalleled intellect to defeat and out-adapt his competition for generations (plural), LeBron is spending quite a bit of time as a passive observer. Thanks to a foot that will probably need surgery this summer and the natural aftermath that two decades of professional basketball would wreak on anyone’s body, James can’t sail through strenuous tasks that he used to make look routine.

This doesn’t mean he isn’t effective. James’s box score stats in Round 1 were impressive enough to exceed what any other person could ever do under similar circumstances. He led the Lakers in scoring, averaged 11.2 rebounds per game, sent Game 4 to overtime by kissing an incredible layup high off the glass, made 65.4 percent of his shots inside the arc, and shot 73 percent at the rim. Exceptional stuff. He was also, always, smarter than everyone else on the court, a master of positioning and angles who happens to still be the shape of a tank.

What makes LeBron LeBron is his resourcefulness, the way he’s spent his entire career preparing for this day by constantly learning, adding to his game, and reinventing himself. So now, when something is not working, he can switch it up and try something else. If that means slipping a ball screen and diving to the rim or popping into the corner because isolations on the wing aren’t viable, he can do that.

If that means stepping up and taking a charge, as he’s done three times since the play-in after taking just eight all season? Not a problem. There are myriad ways to contribute, and at some point or another, LeBron has done them all. Had his 3-ball not deserted him against Memphis, his lacking engagement might not even be a story. There were still glimpses of vintage LeBron sprinkled throughout the series, blips of brilliance summoned from a place of greatness nobody else will probably ever know.

These passes were once normal, expected, and inevitable. Now they come almost as a pleasant surprise. The first round illustrated why LeBron wanted Russell Westbrook, and then Kyrie Irving, on his team. He knew being a one-man control center for his team’s offense wouldn’t be possible for 16 playoff wins, let alone a taxing regular season.

The Grizzlies knew all this, and had success spacing the floor with small lineups that could shoot, utterly unfazed by the fact that LeBron has abused groups like that his entire postseason career. It looked like a bet Memphis might’ve won had Luke Kennard not injured his shoulder.

This brings us to where LeBron is now, and how complicated it can be to balance appreciation with critique when trying to assess what his first-round performance portends for the rest of L.A.’s run. For that, what he’s not doing should be the focal point, not what he is. And through that lens, the upshot is more concerning than impressive.

How much does LeBron have left for the Warriors, in a conference semifinals that allows only one day of rest between each game? Can he box out Kevon Looney, switch onto Steph Curry, create quality shots for teammates, and efficiently score on a high volume?

LeBron spent (relatively) significant portions of the Memphis series in chill mode, unable or unwilling to attack, a statue on the weak side who watched Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell assume pick-and-roll responsibilities that padlocked his own efficacy and lowered Los Angeles’s offensive ceiling. The Lakers produced 88.0 points per 100 half-court plays in Round 1. Only two teams were less efficient. The putrid Cavs were slightly better.

James initiated a season-low four ball screens in Game 6, and the Lakers won by 40. This stat barely computes. It’s like telling someone you drove from New York to Los Angeles with eight gallons of gasoline.

There were chase-down blocks and open-court dunks, but for every one of those highlights we saw a play in which James looked like he was trying to run and jump with a kettlebell in his pocket. His first fourth-quarter basket in Game 4 came with 0.8 seconds on the clock. On the heels of that 45-minute performance, Game 5 was one of LeBron’s worst in recent memory: 15 points, five assists, five turnovers, five made baskets. For the series, he shot 29.2 percent in the fourth quarter, and his overall effective field goal percentage was slightly below what an average NBA player would be expected to convert having taken those same shots.

Tracking data supports the eye test. In 78.6 percent of his first-round minutes, LeBron moved at a speed that was clocked below 8 feet per second (which is labeled as “slow” by Second Spectrum). That’s the highest share on record for him, in the regular season or postseason; compared to everyone else in these playoffs who has logged at least 150 minutes, it ranks below only James Harden and Donovan Mitchell. LeBron’s max speed was also the lowest we’ve seen.

In Round 1, James was forced to hammer away without an explosive first step or consistent ability to draw help and pick Memphis apart with his uncanny vision. LeBron still made beneficial kick-aheads and swing passes along the perimeter that led to quality looks, but he didn’t target smaller defenders, or create and then dismantle mismatches as often as he once had done. At the top of his reign, LeBron could pedal the rhythm of a game to his liking. But against the Grizzlies, he spent an uncomfortable amount of time dancing to the same tune as everyone else.

Depending on how you want to look at it, James either picked his spots or accepted opportunities as they presented themselves, physically unable to do more. Both are troubling for a Lakers team that needs him to be more aggressive. James’s 9.5 drives per 100 possessions are fewer than DLo, Gabe Vincent, and Chris Paul, ranking in the 20th percentile among all players who’ve driven the ball at least 25 times in these playoffs.

An astounding 55 percent of LeBron’s baskets were assisted—never before, in the regular season or playoffs, has that share even crossed 50 percent. That stat is jarring, but not as hard to process as plays when Memphis ignored LeBron James on the perimeter and let him cut through the slot for an easy 2.

About a third of his shots were above-the-break 3s. Some of them were wide-open catch-and-shoot attempts. Others were thrust upon him by a defense that loaded up behind the ball. And more than a few were launched as a compromise, with James settling.

Beyond scoring, the Lakers’ biggest question about LeBron is whether he can be their primary playmaker. His assist rate in these playoffs is not just a career low, it’s about half what it was during the Lakers’ bubble run (42.1 percent to 21.8). His playoff usage rate (a team-high 25.1 percent, but down 7.1 percentage points from the regular season) is a bit troubling, too.

The Warriors will likely play him to score, much like the Grizzlies did. There was one quick stretch in Game 2 when he patiently backed Dillon Brooks down from the right block, drew a double-team from Jaren Jackson Jr. (that was unnecessary), and then whipped a jump pass to Jarred Vanderbilt in the paint for an easy layup.

One play later, LeBron went to the same spot, against the same defender, but this time JJJ did not help. James went to work but couldn’t gain an advantage, eventually flipping a desperation pass to Vando beneath the rim, where Jackson was waiting to block his shot. (LeBron posted up only 11 times in the series, per Second Spectrum.)

James dribbled the ball up the floor 20.1 times per game in Round 1, the lowest for him in the regular season or playoffs in Second Spectrum’s database. (His high was 40.2 in the 2018 postseason on a Cavaliers roster that demanded more from James than these Lakers do.)

When he brought the ball up against the Grizzlies, the Lakers generated 103.5 points per possession, which is also the lowest mark Second Spectrum has for any offense that’s ever started with the ball in James’s hands. He ran only 117 pick-and-rolls in the first round. (Reaves finished with 147 and Russell led the team at 166.)

The 21.3 pick-and-rolls James initiated per 100 possessions in Round 1 is also fewer than ever—he was at 42.8 in the 2020 playoffs—as was the 0.73 points per direct play they generated. James couldn’t turn the corner and get downhill when smaller Grizzlies showed at the point of attack. He didn’t put them in rotation or ever make them sweat. And while he had more success against switches, the LeBron of old would’ve crushed David Roddy, John Konchar, and Xavier Tillman in ways he consistently could not throughout the series.

Then there were all the plays when he wasn’t involved at all. It’d be one thing if the Lakers had someone like Irving to run a two-man game with Davis while James relaxed in the corner. But this setup, with solid albeit far less accomplished and reliable players, was semi-stunning to watch as it unfolded.

It feels reductive to make this point, but it’s true: The Lakers were constructed around the need for James and Davis to walk into any series as two of its three best players. Right now, in any given game, LeBron can’t be counted on as one of the two best players on his own team.

It’s not easy to watch someone who’s been so good, for so long, and accurately gauge what he is compared to what he used to be, or what’s in reserve versus what’s no longer possible. Perfect is the enemy of very good. Against the Grizzlies, LeBron waffled between a B-plus supplementary piece and a great player pushed to his absolute limit. That series is over now. In come the Warriors, and a larger challenge with a slimmer margin for error. It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles beating them if LeBron can’t be a superstar every step of the way.