- LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for fourth all-time on the NBA scoring list, but the context around his disappointing Lakers team is unavoidable.
Even amid the Lakers’ increasingly-tumultuous season, we should take a moment to recognize LeBron James’ accomplishment in a 115–99 loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday night. James, who was born two months into Michael Jordan’s rookie season in 1984-85, passed His Airness on the all-time points list with 5:38 remaining in the second quarter, driving left before finishing off the glass for the 32,294th point of his career. James grew up idolizing Jordan by all accounts. On Wednesday, he moved past his idol for fourth on the all-time list. The King was emotional as he sat on the bench at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and rightly so. Passing Jordan is among James’ greatest accomplishments.
It’s a relative shame, however, the circumstances in which James passed Jordan. His historic layup cut Denver’s lead to 15 as the 30–34 Lakers clung to their playoff hopes by a thread. Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Javale McGee and Alex Caruso shared the floor with James as he brought the Los Angeles crowd to its feet. There was no Magic, Pippen or Stockton by his side. Perhaps Anthony Davis will be with James when he passes Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list next season, though for now, LeBron looks destined for a depressing solo act as Los Angeles limps toward the finish line.
Los Angeles sits tied for 11th in the West following Friday’s loss, 6.5 games back of the Clippers for the No. 8 seed. The Lakers are closer to 14th than a playoff berth, so far behind that a potential tanking effort is in play. Letting James end the season with a 1-2-3 Cancun in March could save some tread on his tires, and an improved pick could be used as trade bait. Weathering the wave of mockery and criticism may be too much for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to bear. Yet with a grueling schedule ahead, the public relations nightmare may be worth an end to this miserable year.
It’s difficult to identify exactly when the Lakers’ season went off the rails. You could argue the tragic turn came two days after Christmas, when Los Angeles began its 17-game stretch without James. The Lakers exited Dec. 25 at Oracle Arena fourth in the West at 20–14. They sat eighth in the West at 26–25 when James returned on Jan. 31. But Los Angeles still sat inside the playoff bubble when James returned, with many guaranteeing the Lakers’ first postseason berth since 2013. They are now 4–9 with James since the start of February, going 1–6 outside of the Staples Center. The season’s nadir was probably Mar. 2 in retrospect, when James and Co. lost by nine at Phoenix. Perhaps Robert Sarver’s goats were worthwhile after all.
It’s also difficult to identify where the Lakers will turn following 2018-19. Their first move is obvious, and the pursuit of Anthony Davis will intensify once again this summer. But if the Lakers miss on Davis, the future could be bleak. Kevin Durant will likely change coasts if he moves from Golden State. I remain skeptical of potential a reunion with Kyrie Irving, and there’s been the usual silence from Kawhi Leonard’s camp. Perhaps Los Angeles will break the bank for one of Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker. Those options could prove shortsighted, though, and a trio of re-signings is more likely anyway. James may be forced to run it back with a similar supporting cast, yet hopefully one more equipped to compete in the West. Just seven Lakers are under contract for 2019-20. James is the only player slated to make over $10 million. Magic and Pelinka will have a second chance at building around LeBron come July.
James’ potential future with the Lakers was on full display on Wednesday night. He finished the evening with 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, well in-line with his season and career averages. James is still an elite physical presence, and the bruises on his body haven’t led to long-term damage. Yet as the clocked ticked down in Los Angeles, James was outgunned once again, surrounded by perhaps the worst supporting cast of his career. LeBron should continue to climb the record books over the next half decade. But the playoff triumphs of his days in Miami and Cleveland may just be a thing of the past.