History is unraveling, and it’s clear that LeBron alone is not enough to keep it together. After a weekend of losing to both the NBA’s best team and its worst, back to back, the Lakers’ playoff hopes are on life support. FiveThirtyEight is the most optimistic, placing their chances of reaching the postseason at 7 percent; no other projection has their odds any higher than 2 percent. It is more than likely that this will be the sixth consecutive season the Lakers miss the playoffs, or roughly 8.5 percent of the team’s 71 years of existence. Not an insignificant chunk. That the greatest player in the world has contributed to this era of ignominy speaks volumes.
At 34, with just under 56,000 career minutes under his belt, LeBron has reached every conceivable milestone there is to reach as a player in record time. In a vacuum, LeBron’s numbers as a Laker are frighteningly consistent with his past two seasons, and the raw stats compare favorably to his career averages as a whole. He is, in a sense, futureproof—his body could break down completely in the next week and he’d still have enough in his war chest to make an argument as the greatest player of all time. But in the Lakers’ current state of crisis, it’s not his future that’s being interrogated (at least not directly). As the team’s glaring flaws became more and more nuanced, and coverage became more and more granular, the season has turned into a referendum on LeBron’s past.
James’s case as the GOAT had grown in legitimacy over the past few seasons. He’d finally asserted himself as a monolithic structure, imbuing in his conference rivals a sense of crushing inevitability, just as Michael Jordan once did with his. LeBron felled franchises like the Pacers, Hawks, and Raptors repeatedly, and seemingly single-handedly. He gave Cleveland—Cleveland!—its first championship. We’ve all internalized what is arguably LeBron’s most impressive accolade: eight straight Finals appearances, something that hasn’t been done since the great Celtics dynasty through the ’60s. But each one of those appearances has become a force multiplier on the whiplash of this Lakers season. It is, at the very least, disorienting to see LeBron’s individual statistics unblemished, with that Finals appearances streak still technically intact, juxtaposed with his team’s record and the very real probability that James will miss his first postseason in 14 years. LeBron hasn’t whipped up a plate of wish fulfillment this hearty for his detractors in about a decade.
The LeBron debate is now firmly a debate about finding proper context for all the ways he affects a franchise. All the passive-aggressive comments and gestures he’s made over the years to light a fire under his teammates have been accepted as just LeBron being LeBron because results were always guaranteed. What happens now when they aren’t? How much blame does LeBron deserve this season? How much does playing in an inferior Eastern Conference cheapen the accomplishments he’s made in the first 15 seasons of his career? Every great player is subject to scrutiny regarding the level of competition he faced in his era, but if it feels amplified for LeBron, that’s because it is. There’s a difference between affirming the greatness of a player and affirming that a player is the greatest. To reach a consensus with LeBron is to reset a goal post as gatekeepers of NBA history. It’s evidently not something many take lightly. But even then, there are some things that can’t be disputed. Eight straight Finals appearances in the best professional basketball league in the world, as the best player in the world, is impressive, and above all else is a testament to the type of physical anomaly he is to be able to endure the amount of mileage he’s logged since the age of 26. It’s one truth about LeBron that we hold to be self-evident, but there used to be more. Lest anyone forget how valuable simply making the playoffs can be for a player’s, team’s, or city’s image—allow this Lakers season to be the ultimate reminder.
Beyond the historical preservation of players like Jordan and Kobe Bryant, the two greats most threatened by LeBron’s success, the retconning of LeBron’s career this season can be seen more generally as a way of tethering the Lakers’ struggles to something definitive about the NBA as we’ve known it. The locker room drama and news leaks have the polish of a longtime Hollywood reality show, and it’s all been shrewdly broadcast, as though it were scheduled by a social media manager. For all the content it generated, the ways in which LeBron, his associates, and the Lakers manipulated the entire Anthony Davis trade market felt unprecedented—and something tells me we only caught a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. It’s exhausting just trying to keep up.
On Friday night, I rolled down my windows right at the downtown Los Angeles intersection of Olympic and Georgia, just one block away from Staples Center, where fans were filing out of the Lakers’ gut-wrenching, ESPN-televised, 131-120 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Lakers fans in “23” jerseys walked along the side streets to outdoor parking garages with slumped shoulders, making plans for an impromptu bar crawl after the latest disappointment in a strange, dire season. Well, at least we got to see 45 minutes of excellent basketball, one said. It was equal parts a level-headed review of the night, and yet another stinging indictment on these LeBron James–led Lakers in the context of modern Lakers lore (it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish might as well have been the official tagline of the Shaq-Kobe era).
The area around Staples Center is a particular kind of loud. The whirring of cars on the 110 overpass and the engine ballads of neighboring vehicles melded with the perfunctory pitches of T-shirt hawkers and indistinct conversations from the waves upon waves of exiting fans. All the sounds stack on top of one another, forming a sonic panoply that might be the closest one gets to hearing a palpable heartbeat from this sprawling city. The purple-and-gold noise echoing down Figueroa used to ring exultant back in the days of dynasty, but in the past six years of botched renovations and rehabilitation it’s registered a bit more plainly: It’s the sound of gridlock traffic, the sound of making reckless plans to forget about what had just transpired, the sound of drudgery. Watching the Lakers has become a taxing line of work—under the reins of a new boss no one seems to like, but whom everyone tolerates because he keeps the lights on.
Maybe LeBron silences the doubters again, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the Lakers have something much bigger in store in the offseason, and maybe Year 1 in L.A. truly was a prolonged layover to a true contender. LeBron will be chilling nonetheless; his life has often seemed divorced from the team’s woes this season, and it’s fair to wonder whether some of the Lakers fan base’s worst fears have been realized: that this really wasn’t a basketball decision for LeBron; that he’s turned one of the most recognizable global sports franchises into a promotional arm for the one-man industry he’s become. The Lake Show is a shitshow, but the first thing you learn in this town is there’s no such thing as bad publicity.