Watching the Lakers is increasingly bizarre these days. But the experience goes from strange to awkward whenever their games cut to a commercial break and a certain ad campaign featuring their best player appears.
The first commercial debuted last month, with LeBron James sweating through biceps curls in his home gym while Richard Jefferson’s voice spills over from a flatscreen mounted on the wall. “It’s his 20th season,” James’s ex-teammate warns. “Father Time, he can’t be far behind.” LeBron rolls his eyes and then continues his workout as a different character materializes off screen: Father Time himself.
“You know he’s right,” says the Gandalf-looking person, played by Jason Momoa. “I’m undefeated.” James glances over in Father Time’s direction. “Oh, we’ll see about that.” The two then square off in a series of contests—planking, karaoke, chess—as a dramatic question flashes across the screen: Can the King beat the clock?
The campaign’s goal—besides, you know, selling sneakers—is straightforward: Let’s poke fun at the elephant in the room and make light of a predicament that this seemingly ageless force of nature may finally be forced to confront. LeBron will turn 38 in December. He probably wants to contend for another championship, but obliterating the league’s record book is a decent consolation. James needs 1,107 points to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. He should crack the all-time top 10 in games played within the next few months. And maybe most telling of all, he also eventually wants to catch lobs from his son inside NBA arenas.
But the commercials also invoke a tension that should ripple through the rest of his career: For a man who’s seen it all, done it all, and is now forced to reckon with his own athletic mortality, what’s left to conquer? In some ways, the framing is spot on and plenty fair. But seeing LeBron acknowledge Father Time as his final boss during a commercial break and then watching him blow a layup moments later during an actual game is an inconvenient reminder that, in reality, he does in fact compete against other human beings. And for the first time in well over a generation, several are better at basketball than he is, while he struggles to make his team look better than a diaper fire.
To be clear, this Lakers debacle is not all LeBron’s fault. Poor outside shooting, the uncomfortable Russell Westbrook experience, and Anthony Davis still not at all looking like the Anthony Davis we watched two years ago are all to blame.
But those problems are irrelevant if LeBron is no longer a clear-cut top-10 player. Los Angeles was built under the assumption that he would be, even at this stage in his career. If not, everyone involved should map out an exit strategy. If Old LeBron is the new LeBron, the Lakers have no chance to make the playoffs, let alone win a series, this year or next.
Despite showing signs of an irreversible decline, LeBron’s basic numbers are still impressive. In 36.1 minutes per game, he’s averaging 24.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 7.1 assists. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson are taking more shots in the restricted area, where James is still shooting 69 percent. But whether we’re comparing LeBron to versions of his former self or other stars, a closer look still sparks reasonable concern. LeBron’s PER and true shooting percentage haven’t been this low since he was a rookie. (Six of LeBron’s nine games have already ended with a true shooting percentage below 54 percent. He had only a dozen all last season.)
For the first time in his entire career, LeBron’s team is more efficient in the half court when he’s off the floor than on it. The spacing in L.A. isn’t ideal, and James doesn’t have the same first step, the one that used to carry him where he wanted to go regardless of how wide his driving lane was. He’s averaging his fewest drives per game since Second Spectrum started tracking those numbers back in 2014, and out of 106 players who’ve driven the ball at least 50 times this season, LeBron ranks 90th in points generated per direct drive (at a paltry 0.89 points per possession). Here against the Pelicans, he can’t get past Larry Nance Jr. Or rookie Dyson Daniels:
Related: LeBron’s free throw rate is also the lowest it’s ever been. There are 29 players logging more attempts per game. Let’s name a few: Saddiq Bey, Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Sengun.
Getting to the line is a firewall for any great player, but especially when their outside shot looks broken. Of the 42 players who’ve attempted at least 150 field goals this season, LeBron ranks second in quantified shot probability (qSP) and last in quantified shot-making (qSM), which essentially means he should be making way more shots than he is. The silver lining: LeBron won’t finish the season at 22 percent from behind the arc—nobody ever has at that volume—or with a lower effective field goal percentage in line with Westbrook’s.
Some of these numbers in a nine-game sample can be attributed to LeBron falling ill last week. “Just feel like my rhythm has been off,” he said after a recent loss against the Jazz. “Haven’t had an opportunity to get on the practice floor because I’ve been kinda told—not just told to stay away but advised to stay away to save my energy for the games.”
But LeBron’s woes aren’t only due to a shooting slump. His post-up game used to be this unanswerable break-in-case-of-emergency weapon. He’d drop his shoulder, batter his way into the paint, and either draw a foul, score a layup, or attract two defenders and kick the ball out to an open shooter. And on the surface, opponents are still showing him respect.
On the whole, though, those possessions have been an escalator to nowhere. James’s post-ups are yielding just 0.69 points per possession. That’s a career low and ranks 31st out of 32 players who’ve posted up at least 20 times this season. Sometimes it almost seems like he’s trying to prove something to himself instead of taking what the defense gives. Look at Patrick Beverley in the clip below:
Nobody is guarding Westbrook, but all the blame can’t fall here. The Lakers’ offensive rating is a putrid 101.96 in 95 minutes when Davis and James are on the court without Westbrook. And in the 77 minutes LeBron has been out there without either, that efficiency drops to 100.7.
All of this data comes from a relatively small sample, and he’s compiled these stats on one of the worst rosters in the league. There’s always (always) a chance LeBron somehow manages to make chicken salad out of whatever these Lakers were meant to be. Nobody in the NBA approaches each possession with a more assured understanding of what the other nine players are supposed to do. And he’s still a brilliant playmaker.
But basketball outcomes are also determined by speed, endurance, and strength. That’s what Father Time is chipping away at, to the point that he may finally be winning the fight James managed to postpone longer than any elite player in league history.
If so, the Lakers really have no choice but to prioritize the future over the present. With a roster that features zero blue-chip prospects and few trade chips beyond a couple of draft picks that won’t surface until LeBron is well into his 40s, they don’t have any other option, assuming the treadmill of lower-middle-class mediocrity is out of the question. Forget about Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. That ship has sailed.
Los Angeles can’t trade LeBron because of when he signed his extension (he’s technically ineligible to be dealt this season), but everyone else should be sold for expiring contracts, young talent, and draft picks. That means Davis, Westbrook, um, Lonnie Walker IV. Everyone. And then this summer, existing as a cap-space dumping ground, the Lakers can do what’s long felt like an unthinkable exercise and explore LeBron’s trade value.
The natural next question is what could the Lakers actually get for a 38-year-old who can dip back into free agency the following summer? Would any team be willing to fork over a valuable asset or two for a seasonlong rental? Would LeBron threaten retirement? Would he guide his way to the Warriors or Nets or red-hot Cavaliers? It’s unclear what all this would look like, since everything about James is unprecedented. But what’s certain is the Lakers can’t stay on the road they’re on, because LeBron isn’t good enough to put them on another one.