LeBron James wanted to talk about culture. After a 128-115 Saturday night loss to the Pelicans—a team in tumult that was on the second night of a back-to-back, and didn’t play superstar/would-be Hollywood transplant Anthony Davis—James took his time to figure out how he’d answer questions about a bleak performance that dropped his Lakers back below .500. That’s what he settled on: culture.
Just a few short days after publicly announcing that he’d “activated” his playoff-level intensity, James faced the media to talk about another blow to L.A.’s hopes of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
“How do you know what’s at stake if you’ve never been there?” James asked, by way of “playing devil’s advocate” about the Lakers’ sputtering playoff push. “[...] It’s kind of a fine line when you talk about that, because when you’ve never been there or know what it takes to actually shoot for something like that, it’s like you’re afraid to get uncomfortable. So you gotta be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
What LeBron can’t get comfortable with is the losing that has marred the past half-decade of Lakers basketball, and that has persisted throughout this year’s 29-30 campaign. L.A. is three games out of the West’s no. 8 seed with 23 games to go. Asked whether Saturday’s loss felt different than the 29 defeats that had preceded it this season—more disappointing, perhaps, since it squandered the positive vibes of Thursday’s big win over the Rockets—James scoffed at the notion, and pointed to the past.
“For me? No,” he said. “See, that’s what I’m talking about ... the last few years, everyone’s so accustomed to the losses. I’m just not accustomed to it. I’m not accustomed to it. I will never get comfortable with losing. So, losing Game 1 to [Portland] is still the same as losing Game 59 in New Orleans to me. It’s just how I’m built. It’s who I am.”
No one doubts who James is or how he’s built anymore. But 59 games into his first season in L.A., there remain a hell of a lot of questions about who the Lakers are, how they were built, and the fundamental weirdness of this whole enterprise.
Since deciding to sign with Los Angeles in unrestricted free agency in July, James has made it clear on multiple occasions that he knew he’d signed up for a new sort of challenge: building a contender ostensibly from scratch, rather than joining a ready-made winner flanked by All-Stars, as he had in Miami and in his return trip to Cleveland. He made it clear that, in the first season of his four-year contract, he wouldn’t use the Lakers’ proximity to a championship as a measuring stick for success or failure. When the team stumbled early, he projected calm, reminding all who would listen that the NBA regular season is a marathon rather than a sprint, especially when you’re leading a team with so many young and new pieces.
It hasn’t been the smoothest race, thanks in large part to injuries—chiefly a groin strain that put James on the sidelines from Christmas through the end of January, and a sprained left ankle that has kept point guard Lonzo Ball on the shelf since January 19 (and could keep him out a while longer still). Eventually, though, marathon runners need to start their closing kick. And James’s comments this weekend suggest some uncertainty over whether he believes his teammates are ready to run at his preferred pace.
“It’s how you approach the game every day,” James told reporters on Saturday. “It’s how you think the game every day. It’s how you play the game. It’s how you prepare for the game. And it’s not even like when you get to the arena. It’s like way before that. It’s like: Basketball, is that the most important thing while we’re doing this? Is it the most important thing in your life at this time? If you feel like you’re giving it all to the game, then you can do other things. But if you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else. That’s just … my personal take.”
While you can imagine some finding a certain irony in LeBron’s emphasis on the importance of putting basketball first while he simultaneously promotes his TV show, his movie, and his A&R work, James is entitled to his “personal take.” It just seems like an odd note to strike right now, when what ails the Lakers appears to have less to do with a losing culture and more to do with a post-LeBron-signing summer spent adding players who don’t fit well alongside him and haven’t played well:
This is how many points better/worse the Lakers are per 100 possessions when a player is on the floor this season. (min. 500 minutes played)— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) February 24, 2019
LeBron = +7.4
Chandler = +5.6
Hart = +4.7
Zu = +3.0
Zo = +1.3
Kuz = +1.2
BI = +0.2
KCP = -4.1
Rondo = -4.5
McGee = -4.9
Lance = -6.2
It’s not shocking that a team intentionally loaded with ball-dominant, iffy shooters ranks 20th in 3-point makes per game, 19th in long balls attempted per game, 28th in team 3-point percentage, and 21st in overall offensive efficiency. It’s not surprising that a team relying on Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson has struggled defensively as of late. These were the issues that virtually everyone predicted the Lakers would face heading into the season.
That these issues are rearing their ugly heads now doesn’t seem like the product of a previously-established losing culture: Brandon Ingram is averaging 21.4 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting over his past 10 outings, and has scored 56 points in his past two games. Kyle Kuzma had a career-high seven assists against New Orleans, and often looks like L.A.’s only bankable source of non-LeBron offense. The Lakers ranked seventh in points allowed per possession when Ball went down; they rank 27th since. (And, for what it’s worth, if James is bemoaning his young teammates’ discomfort, it might be worth examining what exactly made them so uncomfortable over the past few weeks.)
No, this seems much more like the natural progression for an ill-conceived roster. This is why so many observers wondered what, exactly, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were thinking when they installed James at the controls of what looked nothing like A Proper LeBron James Team. There might be something resembling a team like that in the locker room now; my colleague Jonathan Tjarks hailed the trade-deadline acquisitions of Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala as the kind of floor-spacing shooters who could unlock the L.A. offense, but it is becoming increasingly likely that these additions won’t be enough: FiveThirtyEight’s projection model pegs the Lakers’ chances of making the playoffs at just 20 percent.
All that talk about long journeys, everybody understanding it would take time to get on track, and multiyear contracts signaling long-haul commitments hits a very hard wall at very high speed if the Lakers can’t get this figured out. That’s a hard thing to talk about after you just got drilled by the AD-less Pelicans. So, instead, you talk about culture.
“LeBron is one of the few guys who has been through everything,” Lakers guard Josh Hart told reporters last week. “So obviously he’s going to kind of put a lot on his shoulders. But it’s time for us to just grow up.”
Maybe. But maybe it’s also time for LeBron and the rest of the veteran culture-setters that Magic imported this summer to, y’know, set the culture or take responsibility for the mess they’ve created. The Lakers’ latest crack at turning a new page comes Monday against the limping Grizzlies. I wonder what LeBron’s going to want to talk about after that.