Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: the Los Angeles Lakers have been a rough watch this season. A hodgepodge of failed veteran reclamation projects, dubious off-the-radar young upside guys, and whatever Russell Westbrook is now, the roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis is probably the worst it’s been since the duo came together three years ago. And beyond not being very effective, the supporting cast has also not even failed in any consistent way. In mid-January, coach Frank Vogel is still tinkering.
Some things have worked a little, but most haven’t. Early returns on Malik Monk’s insertion into the starting lineup have been promising for their offense, making the move potentially Vogel’s best gambit yet. It goes basically without say, though, that whether Malik Monk starts would not be a needle-mover on any team unless they have an all-time impact playmaker who’s capable of optimizing such a one-dimensional piece. Of course, the Lakers have one: James, at 37, is still crazily effective after all these years, once again carrying a mediocre team well up beyond what their ceiling would otherwise be.
James’ improbably persistent excellence is the undertold story of the 21-22 Lakers, and it’s hard to blame the broader basketball public for not being super interested. The Lakers have pooped on opposing fanbase’s hearts for more decades than most NBA followers have even been alive, and are the de facto villains of the league—so when they fail, or even just succeed at a less than A1 rate, there’s going to be schadenfreude. And boy, has there been schadenfreude. The delights taken by haters observing a 21-20 team are perhaps unparalleled in modern times; if you were to hear discussion of the team without the standings in frame, you might assume they were way out of the playoff picture. All that slander is fine and well, to an extent: the Lakers have had their glory, and Westbrook doesn’t make $44 million to not absorb ridicule when he commits his nightly collection of baffling unforced turnovers.
Too often, though, fans and analysts get on this kick and have things to say about James; things they can’t back up. Comments about his decline that maybe made some sense in the early weeks of the season, when LeBron was visibly taking it a bit slowly and relying more on his perimeter shooting than ever before. Since then, he has arguably played basketball better than anyone at his age ever has. A lot of it has been enabled by that early focus on shooting: making over 37 percent of his three-pointers at almost eight attempts per game, James is having the best season of his career from deep.
This has given him a necessary boost in gravity with the ball in his hands, and one we won’t see the true benefit of until late in the season, when the Lakers are truly fighting for their lives instead of just floating near the middle of the field, during a down year for the typically impossible Western Conference. It’s understood that James has stayed this good for this long in part by realizing that, as he ages, he must manage his body at the same time that he dominates—an act at which only Tom Brady, Novak Djokovic, and Lionel Messi can be considered his true peers. And so we know, too, that we have yet to see James go whole hog yet this season, and that it won’t be until the Spring that we see exactly what more he can do as a lane penetrator, given his extra potency from deep.
A common revision made to statements about James remaining this good—28.9 points per game, 6.6 assists, 7.4 rebounds, and his highest per-game steal and block figures since 2015—involves his supposed sabotaging of his own roster, in his capacities as “GM LeBron.” And while there’s no question that James has a rare influence within his franchise (perhaps only comparable to Kevin Durant’s with the Brooklyn Nets), most of those stories tend to bury the lede: the Lakers are not willing to pay the luxury tax. That shrinks the margins of what’s possible pretty dramatically, and so it’s not as if the players the Lakers have accumulated are LeBron’s, or anyone’s, first choice, nor are they a reflection of a nostalgic mentality that seeks to rebuild the 2014 All-Star team. They are simply signing who they can.
Whether or not it should be this way, especially given the great legacy of the organization, is another conversation. Just let it be known that the attempts to sully LeBron’s great season, truly one of the best we’ve ever seen from an aging star, should fail on these grounds, and bring us back to appreciating the legend as he continues to forge his path to the heavens. One can only imagine how it feels to be this good, and unsupported in his efforts, at this age; perhaps the injured Davis, once he returns from injury, can provide a boost he was lacking at the beginning of the year, and correct that state of affairs for LeBron. Until then, all non-Lakers fans should challenge themselves to appreciate, rather than ridicule, the unseen greatness taking place before them.