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Instagram vs. Reality: What Would the Lakers’ 2018-19 Season Look Like If You Watched Only @KingJames and Not LeBron James?

While L.A. has been losing, LeBron has been doing something we’re all a little bit guilty of: Using social media to show off only the side we want others to see

AP Images/Ringer illustration

People are different online than they are in real life. On the internet, they’re happier. More fun. More successful.

Drake once told a story about a girl he knew whose one goal was to visit Rome: “Then when she finally got to Rome, all she did was post pictures for people at home, ‘cause all that mattered was impressing everybody she’s known.” I always thought it was rude that Drake didn’t congratulate this mystery woman on accomplishing her lifelong goal and instead exposed her superficiality, but he did point out something we’re all guilty of: showing off only the side of ourselves that we want the world to see.

This is common practice on social media, to the extent that “Instagram vs. reality” is a format for joke posts (usually a good picture followed by a goofy one) and serious posts alike, warning followers not to believe everything they see. We all fudge, a little bit. And for what it’s worth, I’d have loved to have seen Drake’s friend’s pictures of gelato and the Pantheon. I’ll even bet @champagnepapi double-tapped.

LeBron James is very online, often to a fault. He’s @KingJames: a tweeter, a ‘Gram-er, a hashtag zealot. He’s the first to send a congratulatory post when a famous friend of his accomplishes something huge; said post will go something like “SHEESH! Congrats [enter friend’s name here] on [enter accomplishment here]!!!!!! [Clapping hands emoji] [Prayer hands emoji] #StriveForGreatness.” He dances in Instagram stories like selfie mode is a mirror. The @KingJames accounts are a mix of positivity, dad humor, and Blaze Pizza. Following them is like watching Superman transform back into Clark Kent in real time, then finding out Clark Kent uses clusters of hashtags unironically.

Like the rest of us, LeBron angles his social media toward the highlights of his life. On Thursday, he posted about passing Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list without mentioning the game the buckets came in: a loss to Denver, the Lakers’ fourth straight. King James’s 2018-19 season has gone far worse than @KingJames would have you believe. We don’t need an “Instagram vs. reality” to know his reality, which is that the Lakers’ 30-35 record puts them in the 11th spot in the Western Conference, 6.5 games and three teams back from the eighth seed.

But what if we saw Los Angeles’s season solely through LeBron’s Instagram account? Here are those 2018-19 Lakers:


July 6, 2018: LeBron posts an artsy picture of himself hitting the Thinker pose and wearing a Christian Pulisic jersey.

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Make your own caption. Have fun..!!

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Instagram: This is the beginning of a successful free-agency period. LeBron officially signed with the Lakers the week before, and now has a giant body of water to stare at as he thinks about what’s next for himself and the franchise. Rajon Rondo is finalizing his contract as we ‘Gram.

Reality: L.A. native Paul George re-signed with the Thunder five days before this post, spurning the Lakers. While the Kawhi Leonard rumors were still in full swing, it was already looking increasingly likely that LeBron would join L.A. without any other stars coming with him.

October 19, 2018: LeBron posts a video of himself dunking during the Lakers’ first game of the regular season.

Instagram: “And we’re ready for Takeoff [plane emoji]!!” James writes. Somewhere in Atlanta, John Collins saves an idea for a dunk on his notes app. Metaphors are cool. But because James is flying through the air in the video, you can’t really see any of his teammates except for a half-second of blurry Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Ingram. So the “we” in “we’re ready” is left up to our imaginations. Did Magic Johnson trade for Kawhi? I bet Magic Johnson traded for Kawhi.

Reality: Since LeBron’s Instagram by the water, the front office signed Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee. Things these Lakers are ready for: improvement, another center, memes, more 3-point shooters, the Big 3, China. Things these Lakers aren’t ready for: the season opener. L.A. lost to Portland, 128-119.

October 28, 2018: LeBron posts a graphic of the NBA’s all-time scoring leaders after playing San Antonio.

Instagram: LeBron passed Dirk Nowitzki to move to sixth all time during the Spurs game, which he finished with 35 points. Not even six games into the 2018-19 season and he is already breaking records. Sheesh!

Reality: The Lakers lost to the Spurs, moving them to 2-4 to start the season. LeBron adds “#imnotevenascorer” to the end of this post (one of five hashtags), a riff on early critiques of his career, which obligates me to point out that none of his Lakers teammates have ever averaged as many points in a season as even LeBron’s worst scoring season (20.9 points in 2003-04). #neitherarethey

October 31, 2018: LeBron posts a graphic of him high-fiving Kobe Bryant on the court as Lakers teammates.

Instagram: A beautiful tribute to one Lakers legend passing the torch to another. It is lovely watching the city of Los Angeles, who once only thought of LeBron as Kobe’s rival, rally around him. They’re really embracing him, and letting go of the past.

Reality:

November 3, 2018: LeBron posts a picture of Brandon Ingram dunking on Jusuf Nurkic.

Instagram: Any chance the Lakers have against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals—a realistic goal, considering their early-season successes shared by @KingJames—rests on Ingram making “the leap.” That means finding consistency, aggression, and a role that fits next to LeBron. It took only nine games!

Reality: Ingram was suspended for four of the first nine games of the season because he pushed James Harden and swung at some Rockets players in the Lakers’ second game. Ingram’s pictured dunk against the Blazers was one of three field goals he made in that game, despite 10 total attempts. Ingram finished with eight points, and is averaging fewer points, rebounds, and assists than he did last season.

November 11, 2018: LeBron posts a picture celebrating with the recently signed Tyson Chandler.

Instagram: “Another W in the books for the home team. We figuring it out. Patience is a Virtue.” LeBron hints at how the Lakers’ season hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Still, given the excitement of LeBron and Chandler in this photo, it seems the Lakers are remaining collected and professional as Luke Walton sorts out lineups on the court and Magic plays Moneyball off it. Chandler sealed the win with a clutch block, yet another example of the Lakers’ collective effort to play basketball at the highest possible level.

Reality: They beat the Hawks by a point.

November 15, 2018: LeBron posts a new graphic of the NBA’s all-time scoring leaders after playing Portland.

Instagram: LeBron scored 44 points in a win over the Blazers, passing another Laker, Wilt Chamberlain, for fifth on the all-time list. Fourteen games in, LeBron is putting up nearly the same scoring numbers (27.6 points per game) he did last season (27.5), which was his highest since 2009-10 in Cleveland. The offense is clicking.

Reality: The Lakers’ second-highest scorer is not Ingram at this point, it’s Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 17.6 points—the largest drop-off in points between LeBron and his team’s second-highest scorer since Mo Williams was draining 3s in the Cavs’ backcourt in 2009-10. L.A. is still top 10 in offensive rating, despite LeBron not having a top-35 (40?) (50?) player by his side for the first time in his 30s, but the Lakers are bottom 10 in defensive rating at the same time, allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions.

Also, there are more exclamation points after the prayer hands emoji than there are Lakers wins.

December 15, 2018: LeBron posts a picture of him hugging Lonzo Ball.

Instagram: Both LeBron and Lonzo record triple-doubles in a win against the Hornets, the first teammates to do so in the same game in 11 years. Zo is turning into the player the Lakers knew he could be when they drafted him in 2017, the Zo that LeBron was confident he’d be playing with when he signed with the franchise. Ball is comfortable being assertive. He’s also stopped wearing those ill-fitting undershirts. Growth!

Reality: Entering the Charlotte game, Ball was averaging 8.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.4 steals—drops across the board from his rookie season. His jump shot has regressed, as he is currently shooting 30.2 percent from 3, and he’s barely making it to the line, averaging less than one trip per game.

February 1, 2019: LeBron posts a video of himself hitting a fadeaway jumper off a spin move against the Clippers.

Instagram: LeBron gives a shout-out to his support system “on and off the floor” because everyone involved held it down in his 17-game absence. He talks about the feeling of being back on the floor with his teammates, who by now are practically brothers he wouldn’t trade for the world. Or Anthony Davis. LeBron’s happy, LeBron’s healthy, and the Lakers are right where he left them on December 25: in good playoff standing.

Reality: L.A. went 6-11 without LeBron, dropping the team from the sixth spot to the 11th spot in the Western Conference. There are very public reports that the Lakers’ front office wants to acquire Davis, who asked for a trade from New Orleans two days before, and has begun preparing offers for him.

February 5, 2019: LeBron posts another updated graphic of the NBA’s all-time scoring leaders after playing Indiana.

Instagram: At 34, LeBron becomes the fifth player to ever hit 32,000 points, doing so during a game against the Pacers in which he scores 18 points. Time to celebrate and live it up.

Reality: LeBron writes, “Guess all else I can say is THANK YOU BASKETBALL!!” the same night the Pacers beat the Lakers by 42, the worst loss of LeBron’s 16-season career, and the team’s third L in four games. Two days before, the grown-ups reportedly had a screaming match in the locker room, while team soccer mom LaVar Ball spoke out about where he’d allow his son to be traded. I wonder why LeBron didn’t post this picture from the Pacers game, instead:

February 7, 2019: LeBron posts a picture celebrating Rondo.

Instagram: This image shows an unbreakable bond between teammates after a win in Boston. They’ve synced. Meshed. Swapped recipes. Shared Hulu logins. They did it: They’ve become a unit.

Reality: February 7 is also the trade deadline. The Pelicans didn’t budge on Davis. As a Plan B, the Lakers traded for Reggie Bullock and dealt Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala.

February 22, 2019: LeBron posts a picture of himself dunking.

Instagram: LeBron’s body feels great and is totally recovered! As the hashtag suggests, playoff mode is now activated. LeBron said as much in practice.

Reality: “The Lakers are privately a little concerned about LeBron,” Joe Vardon of The Athletic reported two days earlier. “Is he fully healed from the groin strain that cost him a career-worst 18 games? Is he going to pick up his intensity and propel this team back into the playoffs, as he did last year in Cleveland? James, 34, is actually averaging a triple-double for the Lakers since his return from injury [24.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 10.2 assists], but he’s just not moving at the same speed nor is he engaging at the point of attack.”

February 25, 2019: LeBron posts a graphic congratulating himself on becoming the only player to be top 10 all-time in both points and assists.

Instagram: Legacy in check.

Reality: The Lakers lost to the Grizzlies. (It’s in the Grizzlies’ best interest to lose.)

February 27, 2019: LeBron posts a picture of himself smiling.

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Wow Life is GREAT‼️‼️‼️

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Instagram: Life isn’t just great, or even GREAT. Life is GREAT‼️‼️‼️ LeBron is glowing as he walks into the arena for the Pelicans game. Radiating. Sorry, RADIATING‼️‼️‼️ He looks like the “after” in a Proactiv campaign; like he’d listened to Solange for four hours; like he’s been doing acupuncture; like he just called his mom and the first thing she said wasn’t “Why don’t you call more?” Which is all to say: LeBron looks happy.

Reality: The Lakers are coming off two straight losses, and are running out of time to make a playoff push.

March 1, 2019: LeBron posts a video of him shooting a 3-pointer in practice followed by gyration.

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Mood.

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Instagram: Still keeping it loose well into the season. Smart to learn from Golden State’s mistakes: Have to keep that energy high heading into the playoffs.

Reality: The Lakers are the 11th seed, six games back from playoff contention with 22 games remaining, and have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. LeBron will almost certainly miss the postseason for the first time since 2004-05.

I seem to remember LeBron captioning another Instagram “Mood,” a long, long time ago in another world, when Kyrie Irving was first rolling with the Celtics and LeBron’s Cavaliers started last season 4-6:

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Mood...

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How little our problems can seem upon reflection.

March 7, 2019: LeBron posts a graphic of him sitting next to Michael Jordan.

Instagram: Though the caption doesn’t quite cover the context, LeBron’s Instagram Story fills in some of the blanks: LeBron passed Jordan on the all-time scoring list against the Nuggets. He’s clearly emotional, thanking Jordan and remarking on how surreal it is.

Reality: The accomplishment does feel on a level apart from reality: LeBron passed the best to ever play, the man he’s always pitted against in GOAT debates, and the accomplishment is minimized by the fact that his Lakers have been virtually eliminated after losing to Denver by 16. It’s almost like LeBron has made two beds to lay in this season—a top bunk representing the entire body of work from his career, and a bottom bunk representing the mess that this Lakers stint has been thus far. For now, he’s managing to keep them separate, personal accomplishment Instagrams by day, team losses by night.