LeBron James has been turning back the clock lately. Over his last five games, ‘King James’ has put the Lakers on his back and has been putting up monster stats while trying to steady the ship in the absence of his 2020 championship running-mate Anthony Davis. While he’s been balling out on an individual level, it’s unfortunately not translated into team success.
The Lakers’ leader has also been on the wrong end of some highlight reels lately, including getting posterized by Nick Claxton in their Christmas Day defeat at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets.
While the 37-year-old forward has been showing that he’s still got the ability to dominate on any given night, the Lakers roster has not been cooperative with his desire to win. The Lakers currently sit seventh in the Western Conference with a 16-18 record, which again has them in the play-in tournament zone. They made it past the Golden State Warriors last season before getting unceremoniously dumped out of playoffs by the Phoenix Suns after Davis went down with a groin injury.
As it stands, should the Lakers again have to make it out of the play-ins, their “reward” would be another date with the Suns, or a series against the Warriors. Those two teams are neck-in-neck in the race for the league’s best record, with the Utah Jazz not far behind. The Suns, Warriors, and Jazz all pose significant hurdles in the Lakers’ quest to get back to the NBA Finals and are all better-balanced.
It doesn’t help that the Lakers really haven’t gelled, and their decision to bring in Russell Westbrook over the summer instead of a floor-spacing player like Buddy Hield, who was their original trade target. Gambling on a star trio of James, Davis and Westbrook figuring it all out together with a rag-tag group of veterans has so far backfired spectacularly. Yes, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo were part of their title-winning 2020 squad, but neither of them are reliable options on a nightly basis at this stage of their careers.
Westbrook, for all of his triple-doubles, also only knows one way to play basketball, and his irrational confidence in late-game situations has cost them more than once this season.
That said, it’s a bit unfair to blame everything on Brodie. The Lakers simply haven’t constructed a title-winning team. It was already a huge roll of the dice to gamble on both James and Davis being able to stay healthy, especially after last season proved how quickly long-term injuries could affect them. The Lakers were cruising with a healthy AD and LBJ early in the season and had the West’s top seed, but relying on the health a 37-year-old who has spent more than half his life playing in the NBA and one of the most brittle big men in recent years was always a dangerous proposition.
The decision to let Alex Caruso go in favor of Talen Horton-Tucker also looks like it’s biting them in the ass. While THT is outscoring Caruso, the latter has been a defensive force and key rotation player on the Chicago Bulls, who are currently second in the East. At this point, I would want Caruso’s production (8.4 PPG, 3.7 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 0.3 BPG) instead of Horton-Tucker’s (11.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG).
Frustrations with the situation are clearly getting to James, who has gone as far as saying that the Warriors and Suns haven’t dealt with injury issues this season. That’s untrue, especially of Golden State, who currently have Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Damion Lee and Draymond Green in health and safety protocols. Klay Thompson and James Wiseman are yet to suit up this season too, but the Warriors still have the league’s best record. The Suns are also now seeing some problems, with Elfrid Payton and Jae Crowder entering protocols. They’ve also not had Dario Saric since he tore his ACL in last year’s finals, while Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky are also both out for now.
It looks like the King’s patience is running out, and it’s hard to blame him. The next few weeks in Lakerland are going to be interesting to watch. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them make a big trade for Westbrook before the deadline.