NBA, Soap Opera Edition
People all over the NBA are commenting on Wednesday’s ESPN fluff piece in which Kevin Durant and other players answered the question, “Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Play with LeBron Anymore?”
Just to recap, the case is made as follows, based in part on facts, speculation, and rumors:
- Nobody wanted to join LeBron in Cleveland, because it’s Cleveland (speculation), so he joined Wade and Bosh in Miami (historical fact).
- Kyrie Irving pushed to get out of Cleveland (historical fact), because of LeBron (speculation).
- Tyson Chandler quote on the difficulty of playing in LeBron’s shadow, “It’s a sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice for winning” (fact).
- Paul George opted to re-sign with the Thunder before LeBron James made his announcement to sign with the Lakers (fact), because he didn’t want to play with LeBron (speculation).
- Jimmy Butler demands a trade from Minnesota and doesn’t include the Lakers in his list of team (fact), because he didn’t want to play with LeBron (speculation).
- Rumors that Kawhi Leonard wants to play in Los Angeles but is more interested in the Clippers (rumor), because he doesn’t want to play with LeBron (speculation).
- Theories that great young stars no longer fear LeBron as the best player in the NBA because he lost to the Warriors and Boston took him to game 7 (speculation).
- The media hype around LeBron is no fun for teammates to deal with (fact), (but no different than it was for teammates of Kobe or Jordan — my comment)
While the story on the surface is mostly unprovable speculation about player motivations and next year’s free agency, there are two really interesting questions that should be considered to help us to understand the story beneath the story:
#1: Why does a story like this come out at this time, when the media has been discussing the “no one wants to play with LeBron” narrative off and on since last June?
When you look back at NBA headlines about LeBron James and the Lakers since the summer, there have been a number of narratives that have emerged, and then been recycled every time a current event might reinforce an old narrative:
- Nobody wants to play with LeBron
- The Lakers are a meme team of underperforming free agent veterans with attitude problems
- The Lakers’ young players are not that good
- The Lakers won’t make the playoffs
- Time will catch up to LeBron James, because of all the wear and tear dragging an untalented team through the regular season
But what we’ve seen up to now this season doesn’t match those media narratives.
The Meme Team: JaVale McGee has played great as a starter, currently #4 in the NBA on blocks, which fuels the Lakers fast break. Rajon Rondo has been playing at nearly the same level he did when his Pelicans swept the Trailblazers in last year’s playoffs. Even Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley have had moments where the shined on the court, leading runs that helped the Lakers win games this season.
Since the washed up 36-year old Tyson Chandler joined the team on November 7th, the Lakers are 11–3, and boast the #3 defense in the NBA, #7 in net rating and are #10 in total rebounding percentage. These are enormous jumps from where they were at the start of the season.
If you doubt the attitudes of the veterans, watch the way LeBron and the Lakers bench celebrates when one of their teammates does something cool during the game. JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler went absolutely nuts when rookie Moritz Wagner scored his first basket in a recent game. Here’s Moe’s reaction.
The Young Core: There’s no doubt it’s difficult to adjust to playing with a superstar. Even All-Stars like Wade, Bosh, Irving and Love had their problems, or don’t people remember the first year he played with the Heat (9–8), or rejoined the Cavs (10–7)? The Lakers also started 10–7.
But the results are promising: Josh Hart (.396 3P% is shooting just as well as last year, and now defending power forwards in short bursts with great results); Brandon Ingram (inconsistent offensively because he is shooting too many mid range jumps shots, but playing stellar defense); Lonzo Ball (still not shooting great, but far more aggressive in attacking the rim and playing elite defense); and Kyle Kuzma (struggled at the start of the season as a small ball 5, but now back in his natural position, he is playing the best two-way basketball on the team because of his improved defense, rebounding and passing).
They Won’t Make the Playoffs: The Lakers are in 5th place, one game out of the #3 seed, and two games out of first place in the West. While the Warriors will regain the top spot when they’re back to full strength, climbing up to the #3 seed would guarantee home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and a good shot at making a deep run in the post season.
LeBron is getting worn down: Nothing could be further from the truth:
- LeBron is playing a career low in minutes per game this season.
- At the same time, he is scoring, rebounding and stealing at levels above his career averages.
- LeBron is scoring more easy baskets as he is willing to play off the ball and lead the fast break for the first three quarters of games. Here are the shots per quarter by the top three scorers this season:
1st quarter: LeBron (4.7), Ingram (4.2), Kuzma (4.0)
2nd quarter: LeBron (4.7), Ingram (2.6), Kuzma (3.6)
3rd quarter: LeBron (5.1), Ingram (3.9), Kuzma (3.9)
4th quarter: LeBron (5.7), Ingram (2.6), Kuzma (2.6)
In the first three quarters, Ingram and Kuzma combine for 22.2 shots per game, which is 152% more shots than LeBron (14.5). It is only in the 4th quarter when the Lakers want LeBron to be the closer, that the kids are really deferring.
(Note: compare that to the Lakers 2010 championship team, where Kobe took almost as many shots per game (21.5) as multi-year All-Star Gasol (13.0) and 6th Man of the Year Odom (9.0) combined.)
That doesn’t leave a whole lot to talk about besides going back to the original narrative, does it?
The same day the ESPN story came out, the Lakers (already without Rondo) lost another key ball handler in Ingram to injury and a key wing defender in Hart (3 questionable fouls in 20 seconds in the first quarter) for most of the game, while LeBron got hit in the head and knocked to the floor three times on drives with no flagrant fouls being called.
Given their three recent 30-point plus losses, the Spurs played an outstanding offensive game (84 combined points on 50% shooting, along with 23 rebounds and 6 assists by Aldridge, Gay and DeRozan, while the team hit 20 out of 20 free throws), but still lost 121–113.
The Lakers blew an early lead, as their defensive rotations were thrown into chaos, but then came back on the strength of a 20-point 4th quarter by LeBron, and great crunch time play by Kuzma, Lonzo and Hart.
As a Lakers fan, you couldn’t ask for more than seeing LeBron playing like the greatest closer in the NBA and the further development of the young guys into clutch players in the most crucial moments of the game.
Of course, for all non-Lakers fans, this is the worst possible thing to see.
I get the media and fan narratives that want the Lakers to fail, but it’s strange for any professional athlete to be stupid enough to provide locker room billboard material for a rival, especially to piss off the best basketball player in the world. And that leads to the second question.
#2: Why in the world would Kevin Durant (LeBron’s closest rival) choose to talk about LeBron James during an NBA season?
I find this the most bizarre part of the story, as it raises more questions about Durant’s pyschological condition than it does LeBron’s desirability as a teammate.
Couldn’t we just as easily ask the following questions about KD:
“Although both players left cities to go to teams with a better chance of winning a title, why is Kevin Durant still being dumped on for joining the Warriors, while LeBron is looked upon as a hero after rejoining Cleveland?”
“Is this unfair treatment the reason he chose to talk about LeBron James, or are there other reasons?”
“Is the media narrative that KD is too sensitive starting to affect his judgment?”
“Is KD playing mind games with LeBron because he is afraid of the Lakers?”
“Is KD trying to discourage other free agents from signing with the Lakers because he wants to play with LeBron and stick it to Draymond Green?”
“Is KD trying to discourage other free agents from signing with the Lakers because (according to Jalen Rose in the video below) he‘s jealous of LeBron?”
In response to all the above speculation, I present a number of facts about LeBron James since he joined the Lakers:
- His 4th quarter performance on the road held off a desperate Portland comeback from a 20-point deficit, helping the Lakers break the curse of the Trailblazers (16 straight losses dating back to 2014, and an 8–32 road record dating back to the 1997 Shaq-Kobe Lakers).
- His 51-point outburst helped to bury Miami, breaking his personal losing in Florida, where he has not won a game since leaving to rejoin Cleveland in 2015
- His 20-point 4th quarter explosion against the Spurs ended a six-game losing streak against San Antonio.
- LeBron’s mere presence near the top of the Western Conference has to be making other teams uncomfortable.