As interesting and meaningful as finding the extent of a superhero’s powers is finding their limits. So it goes with LeBron James, who has been showing us what he is capable of for 16 seasons and is now showing us what even he cannot do.
The L.A. Lakers were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Friday night with a loss to the Brooklyn Nets. They are 31-41 on the season. With one more loss, they will finish with a losing record for the sixth straight season. If they finish 3-7 or worse, they will have secured the worst win-loss record of LeBron’s entire career.
What this season proves above all else is that despite his extraordinary skill and production, at this stage of his career, you need something more than LeBron to make the playoffs, especially in the Western Conference. He is not, as most of us thought in July and October and even January, instant excellence in a bottle for a team without much else going for it.
The Lakers front office was either among those who believed LeBron was enough, or the Lakers front office believed that the questionable pieces placed around LeBron — the meme team free agents and the holdover kids from the preceding tank era — were enough help to let LeBron carry the proud franchise back to glory. Nope and nope.
The free agents were largely disasters, especially in the context of the free agents who the Lakers had let walk and who signed short-term deals elsewhere (Brook Lopez, Julius Randle). The kids were actually pretty good, but Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball suffered major injuries down the stretch that wrecked progress. Altogether, under the circumstances, you’d consider the supporting cast the worst of LeBron’s career.
Add in that LeBron missed more games due to injury than at any point in his career, and that his production was on the lower end of what he is capable of, and that the fight for the playoffs was especially tough in the West this season — the No. 8 seed will probably end up with 47 wins — and you get a stew of defeat for the Lakers. LeBron was a lot, an MVP candidate for a couple months even. But he was not enough.
The last two seasons we learned that LeBron, despite his unparalleled greatness, was not enough to carry a good supporting cast into a series against the Light Years Ahead Warriors and win it, or even really challenge them. Now we know a different, less illustrious contour: LeBron (at this age) is not good enough to carry one of the league’s worst supporting casts to the playoffs in a tough conference.
The open question that will debated in the doldrums as we wait to see the Lakers’ lottery fate and whether L.A. stays in the Anthony Davis chase is how much this failure said about LeBron’s future and, thus, the Lakers’ future.
Like it or not, the Lakers’ near-term future is interlaced with that of LeBron. I wrote about why trading LeBron is basically impossible for the Lakers, even if it’s legally allowed. So it’s worth assessing how much of the smoldering wreckage we’re all admiring should be pinned on LeBron vs. everything else.
The Lakers were +2.5 points per 48 minutes when LeBron played (tops among regulars) and -7.5 points per 48 minutes when he was not on the court (lowest among regulars). If LeBron played every minute of every game without it impacting his performance, the Lakers would be a pretty good team, on the cusp of the No. 8 seed in the West. If LeBron never played, the Lakers would be in No. 14 place in the West.
As it stands, given LeBron’s long injury absence and reduced minutes since the playoffs became a pipe dream, the Lakers are closer to No. 14 than No. 8.
So this is really a two-fold problem in respect to those on-off numbers: the Lakers weren’t good enough to guarantee a playoff bid when LeBron played, and they were absolutely atrocious when he sat.
Now here’s a twist: the Cavaliers weren’t that great with LeBron on the court last season (+1.7 per 48 minutes), but they weren’t really, really bad with him off the court (-1.5 per 48) and he played an absurd amount of minutes (more than 3,000). Add in the easier schedule for East teams and some game-by-game fortune, and Cleveland won 50 games.
LeBron will have played just about 2,000 minutes this season, and the rest of the Lakers are substantially worse than the rest of the Cavaliers were last season. So while LeBron’s personal impact isn’t far off from what was a 50-win effort just a season ago, everything else adds up to make it very much not enough.
The questions then become whether LeBron can stay on the court for 2,500 minutes or so in future seasons, whether new teammates can help him make a bigger impact when he’s on the floor, and whether the non-LeBron Lakers of the future can be better than awful when he sits.
The solution here is getting better teammates for LeBron and hoping LeBron remains healthy, which is so obvious and basic that it hurts to write. But it’s true! The Lakers have a superstar. It is not enough. Get him some help and hope for the best.
We have learned this season that these Lakers aren’t good enough to allow LeBron to return the Lakers to glory, and that LeBron is not good enough to bring these Lakers back to glory. Now we see if the front office can change that.