Sixers smart to reload with Tobias Harris and Al Horford after losing Jimmy Butler

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USA Today Sports

Sixers smart to reload with Tobias Harris and Al Horford after losing Jimmy Butler

It’s easy to see the logic behind the Philadelphia 76ers wanting to run it back. They could justify offering Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris five-year max contracts on the simple premise that they were a few bounces away from a Game 7 overtime against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. They were right there, even with an ailing Joel Embiid laboring through the series.

The so-called Phantastic Phive featuring Ben Simmons and JJ Redick alongside Embiid, Harris and Butler was a loaded crew. So loaded, in fact, that the five-man lineup posted the single best plus-minus of any postseason lineup, per NBA.com/stats. It posted a plus-98 in the playoffs, even better than the Raptors’ starting unit that registered a plus-87. No other team featured a lineup that was better than plus-55. Phantastic, indeed.

Even more promising, with Butler and Harris added midseason, the group’s chemistry was concocted on the fly without the benefit of a training camp or preseason. What if they actually got, you know, time to practice? With Kevin Durant hurt and in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson likely to miss most of, if not the entire season, Philly could have trotted out arguably the best starting lineup in the NBA, finally with time to marinate.

How can you turn that down?

For one, you need everyone to actually want to run it back. It’s not totally clear how much they wanted to do that. As soon as free agency officially opened (ha, officially), Redick reportedly left for New Orleans, taking a two-year, $26 million deal. Butler made it known he wanted out, so much so he flew down to Miami to begin free agency and make it clear that’s where he wanted to be. 

Butler’s trip to Miami was not a leverage play. A source close to the situation says Butler was indeed offered the five-year, $190 million full max from Philly, but Butler wanted to move on. And perhaps the Sixers put the offer on the table with the understanding that Butler wouldn’t take it.

Even if the Sixers deeply wanted Butler back, both sides can confidently say they’re in better places now. With a $141 million deal in hand, Butler will spend his early 30s in South Florida under Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, two gym rats who seem to mirror Butler’s basketball DNA. 

And the Sixers? I really like what they did on Sunday. But holy smokes, the stones on this front office. 

Since taking over as general manager last September, Elton Brand has: traded Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless for Butler and Justin Patton; Traded Wilson Chandler (who was acquired in July), Mike Muscala (acquired in July), Landry Shamet (drafted 26th overall in June), a 2020 first-rounder (top-14 protected), Miami’s 2021 first-rounder and two seconds for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott; Traded former 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz for Jonathan Simmons and two second-rounders.

On draft night, Brand acquired Boston’s No. 20 overall pick in exchange for Nos. 24 and 33 so the Sixers could draft Fultz’s former teammate at Washington, Matisse Thybulle.

Brand wasn’t done reshaping the roster. On the first day of free agency, two blockbuster deals: the Butler sign-and-trade to Miami for Josh Richardson and then signing Al Horford away from Boston for four years and $109 million. 

It’s all a risk, but a worthy gamble, even if this wasn’t Plan A. The Sixers are building twin towers with Horford and Embiid, two of the most skilled bigs in the NBA. In his age-32 season, Horford was among the top-20 or top-30 players in the league last season, depending on who you ask or which metric you consult.

There’s not much that Horford can’t do on the basketball court. As I quickly detailed in my free agency tracker, it’s why Horford has given Embiid so many fits over the years. Over the last three seasons, he’s also shot 38.2 percent from downtown. Only one starting big, Karl-Anthony Towns, shot a higher percentage on at least 500 attempts. Horford is miles better defensively than Towns and a much savvier passer. Horford may not score 30 points a night, but that’s why you have Embiid.

But the best value that Horford brings for the Sixers is that he can be Embiid’s respite.

The Toronto Raptors don’t win a title if it wasn’t for Pascal Siakam filling in for Kawhi Leonard during Leonard’s load-management program. The Raptors famously went 17-5 in Leonard’s absence during the regular season, largely because they had a do-it-all replacement who could fill in and keep Leonard fresh for the postseason. 

Horford can be Siakam for Philadelphia. For the Sixers, the biggest hole all along was the one behind Embiid. The Sixers were plus-143 in the postseason with Embiid on the floor and an astounding minus-107 with him on the bench. The most extreme example of this came in Game 7 when Embiid played 45 minutes and 12 seconds and posted a plus-10. The Raptors won by 2, outscoring the Sixers by 12 points in two-plus minutes Embiid missed.

Basketball people around the league were puzzled by the Horford signing because the Sixers already have Embiid. Said one executive: “That’s a lot of money for a guy who plays the same position as your best player.”

But I think that’s precisely why the Sixers got Horford. He can be a relief for Embiid when he needs strategic rest throughout the regular season. This is a 7-footer with a history of foot problems who, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Herring, deliberately falls to the ground all the time in order to lighten the pounding on his feet.

"I know there are fans that are always thinking, 'No!' each time I fall, but that's why I do it," Embiid told ESPN. "The specialists for my foot told me to do it."

If you don’t believe in the role of the load manager, look at what the Golden State Warriors did on Sunday. Instead of taking next season off and keeping books clean, they reloaded by adding D’Angelo Russell, who, like Horford, plays the same position as the team’s best player, Stephen Curry. It’s possible that Russell is just a rental, as the New York Times’ Marc Stein suggested in a radio hit (although league sources were quick to shoot down that notion). Due to cap rules, the earliest the Warriors could trade Russell is December 15, if he indeed is just a talent acquisition to be moved later. Even then, every game that Russell relieves Curry from having to play 40 minutes a night can pay dividends down the road. 

It’s not just the Warriors and Sixers. After James Harden just about collapsed against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 playoffs, the Houston Rockets went out and acquired Chris Paul, who ostensibly plays the same position as Harden. Since bringing in Paul, no team has won more regular-season games than the Rockets, who might also be the favorites out West next season. 

The Sixers are making the bet that having two stars play the same position is not a bug, it’s a feature. With a high IQ and versatile skill set, Horford plays a brand of basketball that should age well. Horford has never needed to jump through the roof to make a big impact. He’s a year and a half younger than the similarly-skilled Marc Gasol, who just won a title with Toronto in his age-34 season and is due to make $25.6 million next season. Horford’s salary will be around that.

As for Richardson, the Sixers will be happy with his two-way game and a contract that pays him only $32 million over the next three seasons. Ironically, for years, Richardson drew a ton of Jimmy Butler comps internally among Heat staffers. 

It’s a fair parallel when you consider their stories. Butler was the last pick of the first round in 2011 and Richardson was drafted 40th overall in 2015. Richardson has increased his scoring average in each of the first four seasons in the league, posting 16.6 points per game last season while making 164 3-pointers at a 35.7 percent clip. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus, only seven shooting guards in the NBA posted a positive (better than average) impact on both ends of the floor, including Richardson and Butler.

Richardson may not be as good as Butler, but he’s cut from the same cloth. 

Perhaps most importantly for the Sixers’ calculus, Richardson is four years younger than Butler and can grow alongside Simmons and Embiid. He is able to guard multiple positions and can run the pick-and-roll sufficiently enough to play point guard in a pinch. Again, not a star, but he has some more room to grow. 

With Horford and Richardson, the Sixers have the ability to flaunt the best defense in the NBA next season. Their five starters are all average or better on that end of the floor. Embiid and Simmons have the potential to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Rookie wing Matisse Thybulle is a freak defensive player, who was a block and steal machine at Washington. With Horford and Embiid manning the back line, Thybulle can roam for steals a lot like he did at Washington.

This deal still has some minor details to iron out from the Heat’s cap perspective. Either way, Richardson will almost certainly be on the way to Philadelphia, no matter who the Heat send to a third team to make the trade work from a cap perspective. On both sides of this deal, there’s no turning back now. That hasn’t scared the 76ers before.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

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NBC Sports

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

Rui Hachimura sat down in front of a sea of cameras and microphones at WinTrust Arena and scooted up his chair. The 22-year-old smiled and looked over his left shoulder to a group of Japanese reporters.

“Kon’nichiwa,” the rookie said, greeting his fellow countrymen.

It was the Rising Stars’ media availability at All-Star Weekend in Chicago and dozens of reporters wanted to hear the rookie speak. An American reporter tried to sneak in a question.

“Let’s do Japanese, no English,” Hachimura told him with a laugh. 

For the next 15 minutes, Hachimura broke new ground. It’s the first time a Japanese-born player participated in the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and, despite his unique background, Hachimura proved he belonged all the same, shining as part of Team World in the Rising Stars game and completing more dunks (6) than the NBA’s hottest box-office item, Zion Williamson (5).

Hachimura’s star-turn is remarkable considering he didn’t play basketball until 2012, when he was 14 years old. Then again, this year’s All-Star Weekend was, on some level, proof that you don’t have to be a basketball lifer to ascend to the top of the sport. Pascal Siakam didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16 years old. Like Siakam, Joel Embiid was devoted to soccer until he picked up a basketball at the age of 15. 

For Hachimura, growing up in a baseball-obsessed country of Japan, it seemed almost destined that he would spend his life on a diamond instead of a hardcourt. Even his first name, Rui, given to him by baseball-loving grandfather, translates to “base” in Japanese. Hachimura jokes that he switched to basketball because no one could catch his fastball. A late growth spurt that stretched him to 6-foot-8 ensured that Hachimura would play hoops for good.

He quickly rose the basketball ranks in Japan, flourishing in international competition on Japan’s FIBA U17 and U19 national teams and drawing the attention of college recruiters in America. Just three years after landing at Gonzaga University amid eligibility issues over his poor command of the English language, Hachimura was named a finalist for Naismith Player of the Year. A few months later, the Washington Wizards shocked the league and made Hachimura the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

To some, the fact that Hachimura wasn’t schooled in basketball his entire life was a disadvantage. How could he possibly catch up with the world’s greats? But it was Hachimura’s lack of miles on the hardwood that caught the basketball world’s attention.

* * *

Marcus Elliott is a Harvard-trained physician who founded P3 Peak Performance facility, an industry-leading sports science hub in Santa Barbara, CA. Elliott and his team have assessed and studied the biomechanics and injury risk profiles of hundreds of NBA players and hundreds of other athletes at the youth, collegiate, Olympic and pro levels. 

Elliott’s P3 partnerships extend all the way around the globe, even in Japan. Elliott tries to visit on a yearly basis, equally drawn to the Japanese work ethic and its cuisine. He refers to Japan as “a 10,000-hour culture” with an emphasis on discipline and repetition. In high school, Hachimura played for legendary head coach Hisao Sato at Meisei High School and also for Japan’s junior national team, led by German head coach Torston Loibl. Loibl says Meisei workloads are the stuff of lore, practicing four hours a day “at minimum.” Loibl estimates that players from Hachimura’s high school would log over 300 practices a year.

“In high school, I practiced almost all day,” Hachimura says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know what to do. In college, I was more efficient.”

The demanding Meisei practice schedule didn’t phase Hachimura. Loibl was always struck by Hachimura’s positivity and work ethic. He remembers the night before the U17 World Cup, when Hachimura and two teammates knocked on his hotel door at midnight before a big game. Loibl awoke in a panic and hurried to open the door, only to find Hachimura smiling and asking to go over the game plan one more time.

“I love Rui’s mentality,” Loibl says. “He is very focused, works hard and always wants to get better. When (players) have gone through the Japanese system, everything else feels like vacation.”

Japanese basketball culture isn’t new to Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. Sheppard was part of the Phoenix Suns’ organization when they brought in Japanese prospect Yuta Tabuse for Summer League and a short period of the 2004-05 season. 

“I don’t think they had pitch counts in Japan,” Sheppard jokes. “(Hachimura’s training) was difficult -- I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult -- but I still wouldn’t put it up against any AAU schedule.”

The difference is in the type of training. Japanese prospects like Hachimura faced long hours of practice, but the schedule was light on games and globe-trotting travel. 

“I didn't play as many games as the American players did,” Hachimura says.

While AAU athletes fly around the country for tournaments, Hachimura mostly stayed inside Japanese borders. By sheer land mass, Japan is smaller than the state of California.

“The AAU travel schedule, it’s crazy,” Elliott says. “That by itself is super hard on the body. Japan is a few small islands. Even if (Japanese prospects are) playing a lot of games, it’s hard to make a case that it’s going to be as ballistic as it is here playing against the best kids in the country over and over and over.”

In Hachimura’s short time in the Japanese system, Sheppard found a basketball culture that prioritized coaching and personal growth above all else. The games were almost secondary. Out of that, Hachimura’s NBA future was honed.

“It was really refreshing to see,” Sheppard says. “They do care about their kids. It isn’t anywhere near what an AAU season would be.”

The fact that Hachimura wasn’t a basketball lifer, not playing the game until he was 14 years old, was considered a feature, not a bug.

Says Elliott: “That’s got to be an asset. That’s got to be a positive.”

* * *

The Wizards didn’t bring Hachimura in for a formal workout ahead of last June’s draft for fear of other teams picking up on the scent. The front office, led by the newly-promoted Sheppard, had done their homework. They loved his size and impressive feel for the game. Oddly enough, that he played baseball for most of his life appealed to basketball scouts like Sheppard. 

“With Rui, the miles were very attractive to us,” Sheppard says. “Very low compared to a normal kid his age if he was an elite player coming up through the (American) grassroots system.”

Sheppard has been scouting NBA prospects all over the world for over two decades and had grown increasingly worried about what he was seeing in American gyms. Elite prospects in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) system would play over a hundred games a year, putting excessive wear-and-tear on their bodies. An in-depth ESPN two-part series this past summer put a spotlight on the corrosive American youth basketball culture and the injury “epidemic” that followed prospects into the NBA.

Cautionary tales of the AAU ranks are numerous around the NBA. Though the AAU system helped bring many players the exposure that took them to elite college programs and later the professional ranks, those same players marvel in hindsight at the workload they faced as youngsters.

Wizards forward Troy Brown Jr. recalls playing in AAU tournaments as early as eight years old. By the time he was in eighth grade, he had quit other sports to play basketball year-round and was playing up to four games in a day. Sometimes, that also meant playing in multiple tournaments and age groups at the same time.

"I played like 24/7," Brown said. "I feel like at the beginning of it, it’s really fun. But when it gets down to winning games and trying to get to the championship and stuff like that, it definitely wears on you mentally. At the end of the day, you’re younger and you’re not really worried about load management. You just love basketball. You just play."

Wizards center Thomas Bryant noted how long drives and the money parents put up for their kids to play in tournaments can add a different type of pressure. His hardest time in AAU was a tournament in Albany, NY, where he played four games in one day. 

In between games, he was wearing down, but had to keep going.

"My mom was upset because I was tired. She was like 'I didn't drive all this way for you to be tired, you better go out there and win this championship.' Luckily, we did," he said. 

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has been in the NBA since 1987; first as a player for ten years, now as a coach in his 11th season. His coaching career alone has spanned a generation of NBA players from Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Hachimura.

Brooks has also been around long enough to notice how the rise of AAU has changed the NBA. That includes seeing a rise in the amount of players who are more used to playing an isolation game than within a team system, something Kobe Bryant railed against for years.

"A lot of these programs play 60 games in a summer and four games in a day,” Brooks said. “Two things; the wear-and-tear on the body and the win-losses don’t really mean as much. If you lose a game at 10 a.m. it’s ‘Hey, don’t worry we’re going to come back at 12:30 [p.m.].’ If you lose that game [it’s the same thing], so there’s no value in playing for the win because you’ve got a game in two hours. When you grow up in that, then it becomes [meaningless].

"Good players and good teams, the losses hurt. You can’t live in it and dwell in it, but you’ve gotta learn from it. It has to hurt and then you move on.”

While some might look at Brooks’ comments as the complaints of a long-time NBA coach, it’s much more than that for the basketball lifer and father of two. 

"I think it’s too much,” Brooks said of the AAU workload. “I know I wouldn’t put my kids in that situation to play that many games at that young an age where their body is still growing.”

* * *

Elliott can’t get the image out of his head. 

When asked about Hachimura’s road to the NBA, Elliott brings up a scene from a little over two years ago in his P3 gym. It was then that Elliott stood in a room with Zion Williamson and eight other top American high school players as part of a P3 initiative called BluePrint Camp. The point of the camp was to educate the teenage phenoms on how to take care of their bodies and to help identify minor biomechanical issues that could become major ones down the line. He opened with a question.

“Raise your hand if you have something that’s hurting you right now,” Elliott said.

He didn’t know what he’d find. In an NBA locker room, Elliott estimates he’ll see about 40 percent of the hands go up as the wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule takes its toll. But in this room full of teenage phenoms, it was a different story.

“Everyone raised their hand,” Elliotts says. “Every one of them. I was like, ‘Wow.’ These young AAU players, at an elite level, almost all of them have something hurting.”

Though it’s unclear how much can be attributed to AAU scheduling, the top of the most recent draft class has already had its injury issues. Williamson has missed 45 of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 55 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Williamson’s former AAU teammate, Ja Morant, selected second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, needed offseason knee surgery that forced the 20-year-old to start the season on a load-management regimen. The No. 3 overall pick, R.J. Barrett, a Canadian prodigy who traveled around North America playing in AAU tournaments before he even entered sixth grade, recently missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury.

In Elliott’s eyes, avoiding the AAU circuit is no small thing when projecting an NBA player’s career.

“I think Rui’s in a much better place because of it,” Elliott says. “It’s a real story.”

* * *

The thrilling impromptu dunk competition between Williamson, Morant and others at the end of the Rising Stars caused an emotional tug-of-war for several executives around the league. Have a blast, dunk all you want, this is an entertainment product for the fans, after all. But on the other side, insiders also winced with every thunderous dunk attempt. One bad takeoff or landing could jeopardize a career or franchise.

The NBA has grown increasingly cognizant of the wear-and-tear that comes with NBA basketball and have gone to extensive measures to monitor the pounding. When Hachimura started playing basketball full-time in 2012, the title-contending Miami Heat had just begun using a gadget called VERT in practice, a fancy piece of wearable technology that tracked the number of jumps exerted by a player. With an aging core, the coaching staff wanted to keep unnecessary dunks to a minimum.

It remains to be seen whether Hachimura’s road less traveled will pay off down the line. He missed 23 games this season after suffering an accidental kick below the belt that later required a surgical procedure. The good news is that he hasn’t missed a game yet due to a wear-and-tear injury. 

“There are only so many bullets in a six-gun,” Elliott says. “You only have much cartilage in your knees. If you use 30 percent of it playing youth basketball, you have less to draw from when you try to go make a career of this thing.”

On Friday, the crowd roared as Williamson, Morant, Barrett and Hachimura’s college teammate, Brandon Clarke, attempted gravity-bending dunk after dunk. But one person who was notably absent from that dunk competition. Hachimura was on the court, but he was passing the ball off and barely crossing halfcourt as the others did basketball Cirque de Soleil. Hachimura seemed to be perfectly happy as an onlooker. He might as well have been on a baseball field in Japan.

Chase Hughes is a reporter covering the Wizards for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter (@ChaseHughesNBCS). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

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NBC Sports

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

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.

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.

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.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.