LeBron James left Cleveland because the pond was all motor oil and crud. He and others polluted it over those four seasons back in Cleveland, and whatever, he had done the job he came back to do. He went to Los Angeles because there wasn’t anywhere else to go, and because he’s got two Brentwood mansions, and a production company there. To raise kids in the sunshine, work with HBO. He’d figure out the basketball part. There was no rush anyway, with Kevin Durant still in Oakland for another season.
What LeBron failed to account for was that the basketball part still matters most. It upsets him when it’s so far from perfect. He’s got a bad habit, a flawed notion about himself. He wants to be different—namely less impatient, able to take in the full flavor of something before he makes a face and spits it out—and every so often decides that he is. If you do that without putting the work in, genuinely trying to alter your behavior, you can’t be different for long. And you will never truly change. In his Lee Jenkins-aided letter to Cleveland, LeBron wrote: “[Bringing a championship home] will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.” He was mad-dogging Kyrie by the second game.
The gap year in Los Angeles sounded fine in theory, but it’s gone sour. LeBron only likes the idea of young players, and everybody on the team knows he would have happily seen them traded away for Anthony Davis last month. It’s hard to be invested when your future is uncertain. If there were a meteor hurtling towards Earth, nobody would get much work done between the news report and the impact. The Lakers are like that now, toiling blankly toward the lottery, dropping games against the Suns and Pelicans. Playoff LeBron is perhaps the greatest force in the history of the sport, but it’s a super-soaker against a factory fire if there’s nobody to back him up.
He hasn’t made his bed, not exactly. He was probably promised something else. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard. The Anthony Davis maneuver might still happen, but it’s going to come at the price of this current misery, if at all. LeBron is not about making the best of it. He doesn’t cope well with disappointment. It’s hard to blame him, at 34 with the clock ticking, but he’s always been like this. When he doesn’t like the talent around him, he pouts. He is not a mentor. He won’t get where you need to be; he’s just annoyed that you’re not there already. He doesn’t say this, but you know it. His passive-aggressiveness communicates precisely the wrong thing. Solely: I am unhappy with you. You’re left to figure out why, without instruction. If you’re Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma, maybe the impression you get is that there’s no way to satisfy him. So you start summer early. A first-round loss to the Warriors isn’t worth the aggravation.
Luke Walton is getting fired. The vets on one-year deals aren’t coming back. The Lakers will make a token effort to land Kawhi. They won’t even try to reach Durant. They’ll hope the Celtics implode and decide against making a run at Davis. (LeBron, this whole time, will be ignoring his phone.) There are ways for this to break right, but at present it doesn’t look good and it feels terrible. The vibe doesn’t have to be so dour; nobody expected big things this season. LeBron makes so much basketball stuff easy, and he makes everything else unnecessarily difficult.
In his head, there’s a shape of things to come, and who knows how many people he’s told about it. There might not be a lot of details, but it’s expansive. You’ve daydreamed, lived in penthouses while leaning back in a cubicle, so you’re familiar. Another title or two, the grateful Lakers returned to former glory. Greatest of all-time status cemented. Development deals and box office dominance. Billions, plural. A feeling of vast ownership. Like you could pick up the moon with your thumb and forefinger, like everyone has to return your phone calls. LeBron James has put his entire adult life into realizing this, and he’s close.
Yet the grand vision gets in the way of the day-to-day. If you conceive of yourself as a multinational corporation, you’re bound to be impersonal. If you think of your teammates as tools with which to achieve your personal goals, you’re going too alienate them. There is no point in improvement, or building relationships, if it’s not going to bring about ultimate success. In retrospect, the Lakers were never going to have an enjoyable transitional season because that’s not what LeBron is interested in. He operates at the highest level, or barely at all. Which means everything less than triumph is dismal.
If this is a narrow or self-defeating way of looking at the world, well, LeBron has three championships and plays ball as beautifully as anyone does anything. It’s not all good or bad, but it is in each individual case overwhelmingly one thing or the other. Everyone around him bears the weight of his expectation, and if they’re not up to the task, they suffer his wordless contempt. If you were one of the lesser Lakers working with LeBron, you might look down the bench at him sulking and think I don’t know what that guy’s deal is. He believes that’s privileged information. You’re not an equal partner in this. Here is where you’re within your rights to roll your eyes. His arrogance is earned, but it’s not helping.