Two summers ago, LeBron James made his choice. By agreeing to sign with the middling Los Angeles Lakers, James was going to try to climb another mountain.
LeBron knew he would be stepping into the shadow of the beloved Kobe Bryant and trying to rescue the franchise from something it had not known in some time, mediocrity.
James knew it was a tall task. Those in his inner circle warned him that this would be the biggest challenge of his illustrious NBA career -- even more ambitious than bringing a title to the city of Cleveland, more difficult than winning back-to-back titles in Miami after the 2011 Finals debacle, a longer longshot than passing his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list.
Before James came to the rescue, the shine had worn off the Lakers. Free agent after free agent passed. The rebuild wasn’t working. No team in the NBA had lost more games in its previous five seasons than the Los Angeles Lakers. In some eyes, rescuing the Lakers would go down as perhaps LeBron’s greatest basketball achievement.
But this? James did not sign up for this. No human being should be expected to shoulder the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven who perished in the tragic helicopter crash last month. No one can bottle up all that grief, soak up all those tears and absorb the anger for a world in mourning.
But here we are. The “Win It For Kobe” movement seems to be taking hold both locally and nationally and it makes me extremely uneasy.
A tragedy like the one in Calabasas shouldn’t be minimized by the bounces of an orange ball. Beyond that very obvious thing, it’s clear we’re putting LeBron James in an unfair, no-win situation. If the Lakers win the title, it will, for many, be remembered as Kobe willing it from the heavens. If the Lakers lose, it will likely be seen as LeBron, once again, proving he could never be Kobe. It all feels like a trap.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope fans will understand that an early postseason exit from James, Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel in his first year as the Lakers’ head coach shouldn’t be construed as some sort of failure to honor Bryant’s death. Basketball can’t be that serious, right? But I also saw what James’ hometown fans wrote on poster boards when he returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat.
Sports so often give adults a reason to believe in fairy tales, that perhaps Kobe is up there pushing the Lakers along this championship quest. LeBron himself has leaned into it, for sure. When LeBron leaped into a double-pump reverse dunk in Staples Center last week, it was one of the sensational plays of the season, captured in this iconic image by the great NBA photographer Andrew D. Bernstein.
Make room in the Louvre. pic.twitter.com/72nX0ZhgfE— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 7, 2020
But hours later, the Lakers took it to another level and posted a jaw-dropping video of Kobe Bryant doing the same dunk on the same hoop 19 years ago, a clip that generated over 25 million views.
Same arena. Same basket. Same dunk. 19 years apart. 💜💛 pic.twitter.com/fj7HRmqv3c— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 8, 2020
LeBron would later admit he didn’t do it as a tribute. It was just a remarkable coincidence. LeBron could have left it there, but instead:
“Ever see the movie ‘The 6th Man’?” LeBron told ESPN. “Kobe came down, put himself in my body and gave me that dunk on that break.”
Believing in this sort of thing can be comforting on some level. Everyone grieves and heals differently. In the aftermath of the unthinkable in Calabasas, LeBron has mostly been a figure of strength. Just before the Lakers’ first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death, James went off script and delivered a moving speech in front of a grieving crowd all adorned in Bryant’s jersey. Much of the millions watching at home wept (I know I did, thinking about my own daughters).
Speaking to executives and coaches around the league before that game, the overriding feeling was there was no way that the Lakers wouldn’t win that game. The stars would align and the Lakers would triumph in an emotional tribute to Bryant.
Reality had other plans. The Lakers lost by eight. Damian Lillard dazzled his way to 48 points and turned that fairy tale inside out. It was a sobering reminder that James and Davis aren’t superheroes. The Lakers are still a basketball team with weaknesses that can be exploited.
We should be ready for more nights like that. The cold, hard truth is that the Lakers aren’t likely to win the championship in June.
At least that’s what the sharp money says. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projections has the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks tied at 19 percent chance of winning the championship, with the LA Clippers trailing just behind at 18 percent odds to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Even if the Lakers go on a run and nudge themselves into the lead by the end of the regular season, being the favorite doesn’t mean it’s likely. The flipside of 19 percent means that there’s an 81 percent chance that a team other than the one dressed in purple and gold will win it all. The Lakers’ championship probability is roughly the same as Laker sharpshooter Danny Green missing a free throw (Green is a career 81 percent shooter at the charity stripe). Again, not great odds.
In some ways, LeBron is a victim of his own success. Thanks to his play in his 17th season, the Lakers are way ahead of schedule. The preseason over/under on the Lakers stood at 50.5 wins. They’re on pace to win 63. So much of it is due to LeBron’s brilliance, as it was on full display in Wednesday’s overtime win against Denver (32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds was LeBron’s line).
But if you look deeper, you’ll see the full extent of LeBron’s impact. The Lakers are a baffling minus-55 this season when Anthony Davis is playing but James is on the bench. The other side of that coin is just as telling: The Lakers are plus-166 when James is playing and Davis is on the bench, per PBPstats.com.
Without LeBron, where would the Lakers be right now? This gives you a hint: Over the last two seasons, the Lakers have been outscored by 201 points in the 2,765 minutes with James on the bench, or getting beat by 3.5 points every 48 minutes. That’s the same differential as the this season’s Minnesota Timberwolves, who are 16-27.
LeBron is doing what he set out to do: resurrect the Lakers into championship contenders. The on-off numbers illustrate the kind of impact he’s had on the organization; how much the 35-year-old means to their success. Three years after firing their front office two days ahead of the trade deadline and being the laughing stock of the NBA (hello, Knicks!), the Lakers are now 41-12 and blazing to the West’s No. 1 seed -- all because of LeBron. It’s hard to say otherwise.
But with the Lakers exceeding expectations, it feels like we’re building toward an inevitable letdown. The signs are there. The Lakers are 0-5 against the Clippers, Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season despite LeBron averaging 21.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists in those games. The Lakers’ struggles at the top have less to do with LeBron and more to do with the fact that Dwight Howard inked to a non-guaranteed contract is often the team’s third-best player.
So much can change between now and June. The Lakers, as it stands, are not likely to win it all. If they don’t, it almost certainly won’t be because of LeBron. They’re not there without him.
If the Lakers do indeed fall short of the title, resist the urge to put Kobe’s death on LeBron or the Lakers. It’s not fair. How much can one man possibly do? LeBron is only human. If Kobe’s tragic death has taught us anything, it’s that humans can only control so much of their fate. This isn’t a mountain. This is a bottomless void. James shouldn’t be asked to fill it.