"It's been activated," LeBron James said of his playoff intensity. "I'm going to be a little bit different a little bit earlier than I would like to be." That quote came on Wednesday last week, with the Lakers in 10th place and headed back to the regular season after the All-Star break. "I love being uncomfortable,” James added. “I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me and I love it.”
This Lakers season is not going well for anyone, but it's taken some especially depressing turns this week. Saturday night in New Orleans, the Lakers flatlined and gave away an easy win against the Pelicans in the middle of a race for one of the West's final two playoff spots. Then came Monday's loss against the shorthanded Grizzlies in Memphis. The Lakers trailed by double-digits for most of the game, and went more than seven minutes without a field goal in the second half. The game was closer at the end, but the final minute only twisted the knife. On L.A.'s side the game ended with this: a missed LeBron free throw, a missed Kyle Kuzma three, an airballed LeBron three, a LeBron charge, a made Reggie Bullock jumper, and one more missed LeBron three.
That Grizzlies loss is what rock bottom looks like. Mike Conley, Jonas Valanciunas, Joakim Noah, and Avery Bradley were considerably steadier than anything L.A. was bringing to the table Monday. And the most amazing development of this Lakers season is that games like that really shouldn't be surprising anymore. Any honest assessment of the Lakers leaves them looking flawed from top to bottom, and particularly dysfunctional at the core. Baffling losses are a feature, not a bug.
The Lakers can still make the playoffs. The Memphis loss came just as the Spurs lost in Brooklyn to finish a 1–7 road trip, and the Kings lost in Minnesota. L.A. is three games back from the eighth seed with games against the Pelicans and the Suns later this week, both of which should be wins. The remaining schedule is tough, but not impossible. Next Saturday against the Celtics in prime time, for instance; various statistical models would probably project L.A. to lose that game, but is anyone confident picking against LeBron in that spot? The same logic applies to games against the Clippers and Nuggets next week. The Lakers story isn't over.
In the meantime, what we saw Monday night was a reminder of how just many problems have emerged along the way. Luke Walton seems lost trying to motivate this team, and his rotations still leave outsiders scratching their head. The supporting cast continues to be its own living, bricking indictment of the front office and all the decisions that were made this past summer. Lonzo is still hurt, and Rondo is still not playing defense. The chemistry seems like it's a mess after the trade deadline, and while LeBron seemed to question the commitment of his younger teammates after the Pelicans loss—"Basketball, is that the most important thing while we’re doing this? Is it the most important thing in your life at this time?"—the same question could obviously be posed to him. It seems like every other week this season, James has announced a new entertainment project. (Here's video of James executive producing a 2 Chainz album the night before a Warriors-Lakers game that he missed for rest).
In the lowest moments of this Lakers season it's hard not to ask bigger questions about where all of this is headed. Interviews and off-court empire building aside, LeBron hasn't looked like the same player since he's returned from the injury. That mortality is new, and it makes the entire bargain more complicated. LeBron is slower, he's settling for fadeaway jumpers instead of getting to the rim, and his effort on defense is sporadic at best.
This is what it looks like when great players get old. He's still overpowering and crafty in equal measure, so he'll get his numbers, but "activated" or not, his impact hasn't been the same. So with cap space coming this summer, how many other stars will want to play with this version of LeBron? If L.A. can't trade for Anthony Davis, what's the plan? If this is the nucleus L.A. brings back next season, what's the ceiling? For both the Lakers and LeBron, this year's playoffs are only half the problem. The standard for real success is an NBA title, and the outlook over the next few years has never looked less promising.
A clip from this winter's "More Than an Athlete" docuseries resurfaced in the wake of the Grizzlies loss. LeBron's agent and friend, Rich Paul, was reliving the logic of this summer's free agency decision. "Let's go through this exercise," he remembered telling LeBron. "If you stay [in Cleveland] and lose 10 games in a row, you gon' be like, 'Damn, maybe I should've went to Philly or L.A.' If you go to Philly and y'all lose 10 games in a row, you'd be like, 'Damn, maybe I should have stayed or went to L.A.' But if you go to L.A. and you lose 10 games in a row, it's like, 'Well s--t, we gotta figure this thing out.'"
I think that Paul's point was that once a player goes to the Lakers, there are no more greener pastures around the NBA. It's a good argument, and one that underscores both the opportunity and the challenge that has been looming in L.A. since July 1st.
LeBron went to the team on the biggest stage, in the biggest city, with the most money, and the most history. Now he has to figure this thing out.