LeBron James missing the playoffs with the Lakers is not Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards.
That's the spin from some corners of the NBA community needing a history lesson or those looking for rationale as to how Los Angeles inexplicably did not qualify for the postseason in the first season with the four-time MVP.
After years of being able to nearly guarantee himself in Eastern Conference finals, it was hard to understand James’ reasoning - at least when looking at his purely from a playoff potential stance - this off-season for a Lakers team not immediately capable of dethroning Golden State and overwhelming the loaded West.
Maybe James believed the repeated hype that he could win with no help. Maybe he didn’t want to deal with the drama from Cleveland’s team owner anymore. Maybe he just liked the warm weather. Maybe he wanted a new challenge. Maybe he just wanted to play for the Lakers. After the Cavaliers reached the 2018 NBA Finals, we all heard loud debates over whether his supporting cast in Cleveland were the worst of his career.
Sure, we’ve discussed for a decade-plus how weak the Eastern Conference is to the point of relentless discussion of seeding the playoffs 1-16. Yet this aspect got overlooked when stating the eight consecutive finals appearances more impressive than either of Jordan’s three-peat’s or ripping his teammates.
James deserves credit as the ultimate roadblock in that era to the point some teams passed on trying to take him on. Teams like the Wizards acknowledged they were happy he went West.
There just weren’t many impediments for James in that time.
During those eight years, here were the Eastern Conference players that earned first or second-team honors:
2010-11: Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Amar'e Stoudamire (2nd)
11-12: Howard, Rose
12-13: Carmelo Anthony (2nd)
13-14: Joakim Noah
14-15: Pau Gasol (2nd)
16-17: Giannis Antetokounmpo (2nd), Isaiah Thomas (2nd)
17-18: Antetokounmpo (2nd), Joel Embiid (2nd), DeMar DeRozan (2nd)
There are no current top-50 players of all-time in that group. James and the Heat reached and won the 2012 NBA Finals as the two-seed behind the Bulls. Rose, the 2011 league MVP, suffered a severe knee injury in the opening round of the playoffs.
Howard, whose Magic team beat the James-led Cavaliers to reach the 2009 NBA Finals, bounced to the Lakers in 2012.
Before the eight-year dominance, the Celtics with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett eliminated James’ team in 2008 and 2010. Boston ushered in the future by trading those two stalwarts in 2013.
Those injuries, decisions and realities were not James' to worry. It's not his fault the Knicks remained laminated in failure and the 76ers went through a process.
Meanwhile, here’s the list of Western Conference players to make first or second team All-NBA at least once from 2011-18: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Andrew Bynum, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Marc Gasol, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard, Rudy Gobert.
That impressive group includes the last five league MVPs. In the context of eight consecutive finals appearances, what matters is James never faced anyone from this group until the championship round.
Look at the Lakers current roster, the one with talented kids on rookie deals trying to show they belong and the veterans on one-year contracts. Is this group significantly worse than the 2018 NBA Finalist Cavaliers with a supporting cast everyone said offered James no help?
The answer is no. They were playing at a top 4-6 seed clip before injuries struck.
Maybe this LA roster in the East gets it done even with various bumps and bruises. This group certainly makes the playoffs. But instead, they face games where Rajon Rondo even refuses to sit on the team’s bench.
The injury woes are something that James’ squad has in common with the Wizards when they meet on Tuesday night in Los Angeles. With team owner Ted Leonsis basically acknowledging last week that the Wizards’ season was done and the Lakers acknowledging that about LeBron’s first season in California earlier this month, both teams are facing hard questions about their futures after injuries sucked the hope out of the season.
Jordan’s journey with the Wizards wasn’t the equivalent to LeBron’s venture out West -- Jordan was much older and it was a side note to his career, a cool thing for Wizards’ fans to say they saw when they came to the arena.
One commonality exists. MJ, who ended his two-year unretirement at 39, didn't win in Washington without a Pippen. James struggled in LA without a Wade, Bosh, Irving or Love.
For those that insist on narrowing the GOAT debate to two players, consider the following. At age 34, Jordan won his sixth ring with the Bulls. At age 34, James had one of the most miserable seasons of his career.
The question that remains for LeBron is what this time with the Lakers will end up being - something that he turns around and makes into a contender in his time there? A lackluster few years in an otherwise stellar career that’s gone far beyond basketball?
While the basketball world waits, one thing is clear: The Eastern Conference is a bit easier without him. Even if he may miss having the guaranteed wins.
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