A couple of years back, LeBron James was in a movie with Amy Schumer called “Trainwreck.”
And given the events of the 2018-19 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers could easily be called “Trainwreck 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
Lakers players reportedly were “not pleased with LeBron’s body language” during the season, as James appeared to throw his teammates under the bus and treat them less as teammates and more as four warm bodies merely present because the rules of basketball necessitate that there be five players from each team on the court at one time.
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that Rajon Rondo called a players-only meeting in Memphis in hopes of clearing the air before a game that was both must-win and eminently winnable against a bad Grizzlies team, which had lost 17 of their past 20 games, on Feb. 25.
Of course, Memphis won that game 110-105, and the Lakers went into free fall. Los Angeles posted a 2-10 record in their next 12 games and went tumbling out of playoff contention for good.
Several players voiced their concerns about James’ body language in that meeting. They spoke out about how LeBron seemed to sulk rather than lead when the Lakers’ fortunes went south.
James accepted the criticism, pointing out to his teammates how he was unaccustomed to losing—the last time LeBron was forced to watch the entirety of the NBA playoffs on television, it was 2005, and the last LeBron-less NBA Finals was way back in 2010—and promising to be better.
But in the midst of that season-killing stretch of losses, nothing changed.
One of the most indelible images of this Lakers season is James sitting by himself at the end of the bench as Indiana Pacers fans, giddy at their team’s 42-point thrashing of the visitors from the City of Angels and without the injured Victor Oladipo, chanted “LeBron’s gonna trade you” at James’ Lakers teammates.
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) February 6, 2019
The narrative crystallized on that night. According to many basketball fans and pundits, LeBron James had single-handedly killed the entire team chemistry of a young and developing team that, while they didn’t come close to the playoffs in 2017-18, at least had a young core they could develop.
The Lakers have shut down James for the rest of the year, clearly prioritizing a higher draft pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. That means, however, that there is now a set-in-stone statistical baseline to study the effects James had on the team during the 55 games he played before sitting for good.
With James in the lineup, the team went 28-27, a 42-win pace over an 82-game season in a Western Conference where the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are tied for the lowest playoff seed and already have 44 wins each with five games left to play.
Without James, the Lakers are, depending on when and from what angle you look at the data, between a 23- and 29-win team over 82 games.
The Lakers players not named James have clearly put in relatively lackluster performances, be it on offense, defense or both, this year. But as the best player and leader of such a young team, James must still shoulder the bulk of the blame for the Lakers missing the playoffs for their sixth straight season, as well as the fractured chemistry of the squad.
The Lakers are stuck with this mess, and how LeBron James copes with that fact will say a lot about whether the team sniffs the playoffs in any of James’ three remaining years on his four-year contract.
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