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  • LeBron's first year in Los Angeles has been so disastrous that it’s invited critiques about his greatness. The Crossover explains why James should return from this lost season with renewed motivation.
By Rohan Nadkarni
March 08, 2019

I go back and forth on whether LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’s unquestionably in my top two. Sometimes I’m convinced no one could do more things than him on a basketball court. Other times I remember Michael Jordan literally quit the sport before coming back to win three more championships. (Somehow we don’t talk about that enough..) What should have felt like a triumphant moment when LeBron passed MJ on the NBA scoring list was instead yet another sad moment in a bizarre season for James. It wasn’t a coronation; James was left to celebrate his accomplishment during a blowout, with a random smattering of teammates who don’t really have a connection to most of his career—with Rajon Rondo bafflingly the exception. The awkwardness of that moment, combined with the news the Lakers are most likely slowing James down as their playoffs hopes dwindle, left me wondering if there’s a glass half-full view of James’ L.A. situation.

This Lakers season has already felt like several different ones. They defied most expectations through Christmas, playing great defense en route to a four seed. Then there was the time Bron was hurt. Then there was the Anthony Davis saga. Then there was the failed postseason push. Each successive iteration was exponentially more depressing than the last, to the point where I feel at times genuine discomfort watching the guy who made eight straight Finals struggle to push his team ahead of a Marc Gasol-less Grizzlies squad. There was a time when the Hindenburg potential of the Lakers was captivating, but now that they’ve crashed, I feel kind of gross admiring the wreckage of the guy who’s created so many incredible basketball moments.

So in trying to take an optimistic view—maybe some good can come from what’s felt like a wasted year of LeBron’s career. James’s motivations can be a little hard to decipher these days. Sometimes he seems at peace with his accomplishments, other times he claims to be chasing ghosts. Perhaps a year of people shoveling dirt on his career will bring out an emotion we haven’t seen from LeBron in quite some time: Anger.

I’m not talking about the villain persona James adopted during his first year in Miami. Or the moment Bron punched a whiteboard after a crushing loss in the Finals. What I want to see is a season-long tour of Bron reminding people why he’s even in the GOAT conversation. It’s been a while since James has been compelled to prove anything on a basketball court. He certainly doesn’t *need* to prove anything. But as critics like me are now freely dumping on the Lakers, maybe LeBron will feel a nudge to go scorched earth, with a long offseason to prepare for at least one more tour of domination.

I understand the unlikeliness of this. James is very old in NBA terms, and L.A.’s future in many ways hinges on Anthony Davis. But I’m starting to see the other side. Maybe the long summer is a blessing in disguise. Maybe KD leaves for the Knicks and it no longer takes a superteam to be in the Finals conversation. Maybe the Lakers hold on to Brandon Ingram and package the other youngsters for a non-Davis star. Maybe some new player becomes disgruntled and actually makes his way to Los Angeles. (Like, did any of us think Kristaps Porzingis would be a Mav at this time last year?) These scenarios aren’t perfect or fully baked, but they’re not impossible.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

I had a conversation with a colleague at All-Star Weekend about if James’s career is somehow a disappointment. I think he’s a victim of his own success. The only reason people seem to sometimes be left wanting more from LeBron is because he was talented enough to take his teams to the Finals nine times in the first place. I also can’t imagine this conversation would’ve been broached if the Lakers hadn’t started sliding after Christmas. But right now, James’s first year in L.A. has been so disastrous that it’s invited critiques about his greatness. That’s a swift and sudden departure from the guy who put up a 50-point triple double in a Finals game not even a year ago.

The end will come for James one day, and it likely won’t be triumphant the way it wasn’t for Kobe, or Tim Duncan, or yes, even Jordan. I just refuse to believe it’s happening now, on a team so inconsequential, so hardly removed from examples of his greatness.

The best thing any LeBron fan can hope for at this point is to see him come back next season with a renewed motivation, a focus not on chases or accomplishments, but a singular drive to prove he can still lift a team when the outlook is the grimmest it’s ever been. Re-igniting that kind of hunger in James would make this season—a season we all thought the Warriors were winning no matter what!—worth it. LeBron’s ability to exert control dwindles with each successive minute he puts on his body. Maybe a year of people knocking James down a peg gives him just enough fuel to remind his critics how he got to this point in the first place.

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