LeBron James, Laker Slayer - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
LeBron James, Laker Slayer

For the second time in the four years of the LeBron James era, the Los Angeles Lakers slinked feebly off the floor of their final regular-season game with no NBA playoff plans other than to kick back in their Barcaloungers and catch the action on their flat screens.

This is especially egregious because the league, for the second year in a row, has expanded its playoff structure beyond 16 teams to include a “play-in” tournament. Teams with the seventh- through the tenth-best records in each conference play a series of games to determine the seventh and eighth seeds, and the honor of being hammered by the second and first seeds, respectively, in the first round of the playoffs.

The Lakers missed the cut. They came in 11th in the West. They ended their season with a 33–49 record, 2–8 in their final 10 games; they finished 31 games behind the conference-leading Phoenix Suns.

The glorious, historically dominant franchise is in disarray; Laker greats of old are concerned; lots of fingers are pointing at the “Chosen One” as the culprit; and the Mouth of ESPN, Stephen A. Smith, is saying that James, the engineer of this debacle season, is “horrible as a GM” and can forget about the GOAT conversation — that honor is Michael Jordan’s.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When superteam super-builder James departed Cleveland after the 2017–2018 season for the NBA’s glam franchise, he was to bring his winning ways and magnetic appeal with him. In his first season in the purple and gold, the team missed the playoffs. For the second year, James engineered a trade for Anthony Davis, a big-man all-star from New Orleans, and the team ended an abbreviated COVID season with a title in the NBA Bubble — all games were played with no fans in Orlando. The third season resulted in a first-round playoff knockout, and then this year, no postseason again, despite preseason projections of a second-place Western Conference finish.

James on the court has put up banner numbers this season, some of the best of his lengthy career — 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game.

It’s in his unofficial posture as de facto general manager that he has tossed up numerous air balls. Because he doesn’t like playing with younger, inexperienced players, in the past few years the team has let go youth, and with it valuable role players who pass well and defend and don’t mind complementing the stars, and picked up a squad of future Hall of Famers long of tooth and short of mojo. Carmelo Anthony (age 37), Dwight Howard (age 36), and Russell Westbrook (age 33), along with James (now 37), lead a team whose average age is 30, the league’s foremost geriatric roster.

One of James’s preferences in personnel evoked the ire of the ever-buoyant Magic Johnson. For the past season, the Lakers, at James’s insistence, let go a number of younger players to bring aboard Westbrook, from the Washington Wizards. Westbrook is an athletic freak — lightning fast, strong, a leaper — who, alas, does not play well with others. He needs the ball to be effective, as does James, but has been a clang factory and turnover machine.

What peeved Johnson was that another star, an LA native, DeMar DeRozan, a 20-point-per-game scorer for the San Antonio Spurs, wanted badly to return home and play for LA’s flashy, older franchise, and was almost in the fold when James nixed the deal to bring in Westbrook. “The blame [James] has to take is the fact that DeRozan ended up in Chicago and not with the Lakers,” Johnson said. “We could have made that deal. But when Russell (Westbrook) and LeBron started talking, that’s when [the Lakers] nixed that deal and went with Westbrook, and he became a Laker instead of DeRozan.”

And how is that working out? DeRozan is averaging 27.9 points per game for the ascendant Chicago Bulls, who made the playoffs as a six seed. Westbrook, on the other hand, has justly earned the moniker “Westbrick.”

James is even taking heat for social justice faux pas. James is the commissioner of wokery in the sports world’s wokest league. He and his Miami Heat teammates wore hoodies for a game in honor of Trayvon Martin. In Cleveland, he and teammates donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in 2014 to honor Eric Garner. As a Laker, in 2021, he tweeted an antipolice message after a Columbus, Ohio, cop shot a woman who was lunging at another woman with a knife, thus saving the latter’s life; his tweet included a picture of one of the involved policemen with the message “You’re next #Accountability,” ostensibly predicting a fate for the officer similar to that of Derek Chauvin, of George Floyd ignominy. He dispatched mocking tweets about Kyle Rittenhouse’s witness-stand tears. He was all-in for Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. (His sense of justice does not extend to Chinese forced labor making shoes and gear that pad his wallet, but that’s a topic for another day.)

None other than Laker icon, and no mean social justice warrior in his own right, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said James should be “embarrassed” for “some of the things he’s done.” The league’s all-time leading scorer wouldn’t specify particulars and has since blunted his criticism with an array of qualifications, but earlier this year he criticized James for insufficient COVID hysteria as well as James’s “big balls” dance after hitting a three-pointer against the Indiana Pacers — a saucy little number wherein the player grabs his “package” with one hand and struts in triumph about the court. James was fined $15,000 for the act, equivalent perhaps to an NBA player’s monthly protein shake budget.

But there’s always next year, right? Not hardly. Westbrook’s $44 million salary — cranked up to $47 million next year — when added to the salaries of James and the oft-injured Davis, puts the team’s payroll over next year’s projected salary cap of $121 million and curtails free agency adventuring. The upcoming draft offers no relief from the present miasma because the team has zero picks.

For his part, James might be looking for greener pastures. Over the all-star break he floated the possibility of a return to Cleveland, and recently he fantasized about combining forces with Steph Curry, a prospect the latter dismissed out of hand.

This off-season promises to be an active one for the LA team. Already, a day after the end of the regular season, reports are circulating that the coach, Frank Vogel, has been let go.

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