The King’s decline: James looks flawed amidst Lakers’ struggles

Due to the Lakers’ disappointing season, LeBron James will likely not make it to the NBA Finals, let alone the playoffs, for the first time in nine years. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons user Ytoyoda)

When LeBron James chose to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers last July, it was widely considered to be just the first step in the team’s return to relevancy.

No one expected him to win a championship right away, without another star to serve as his right-hand man. Yet having the best player in the world did bring along some expectations. The Lakers have not only failed to meet those expectations; they have reached a new low.

The Lakers came out of the All-Star break with an emotional win over the Houston Rockets, the current No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, and the team seemed to be rejuvenated from the time off. Any hope that this was the case diminished quickly, however, as LA dropped its next game to the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans — during which they allowed 69 points in the first half alone — and then followed that performance with another loss, this time to the tanking Memphis Grizzlies.

With just 22 games remaining in the season and, ahead of Thursday’s games, two teams separating them from securing the No. 8 seed in the West, a Lakers playoff appearance seems unlikely.

James has played in the NBA Finals the past eight seasons, a remarkable streak that will almost certainly be broken this year. That’s the least of James’ and the team’s problems, though.

If the Lakers can’t find a way to get it together, if they can’t regain the team chemistry shared before James’ groin injury Dec. 25, if the King is not only dethroned, but kicked out of the kingdom altogether, a true crisis for the Purple and Gold will ensue.

Suddenly, their young and promising core doesn’t look so promising, and the greatest player of this generation doesn’t look so great. Which impending star free agents would want to sign themselves up for such a circus?

Not Kawhi Leonard, not Kyrie Irving, not Kevin Durant, not Klay Thompson … the list goes on. While some premier players might give the Lakers a glance simply because of their glitz, glamor and Hollywood life, most would likely immediately write them off.

If LA isn’t able to figure it out, they won’t just be sacrificing a playoff appearance, but also any hope of a championship in the near future.

While everyone should be held accountable for their poor and uninspiring play, the Lakers’ burden for the rest of the season will fall largely on one guy: LeBron.

It seems unreasonable to ask more from a player who still manages to record a triple-double even on an “off night,” as James did against the Grizzlies Monday, but simply racking up offensive stats has proven to be unsuccessful for LA. Most visibly, their defensive intensity needs to improve, and believe it or not, that starts with James.

There were multiple instances in the loss to the Grizzlies Monday night in which the entire Lakers squad looked confused and disoriented on the defensive end. In each of these possessions, James’ effort, or lack thereof, was the most conspicuous factor.

James seems to have fallen into a trend of taking possessions off. Whether it has something to do with his age, early-season injury, or some other factor, his movement and defensive rotation looks lazy and uninspired. Often, he is caught sitting in the lane with a significant distance separating him from his defensive assignment. This leads to wide open opponent shots and confusion for James’ teammates on numerous occasions.

James can go on and on about how his “playoff mode” has been activated — in some sense it has, when looking at the offensive portion of his game — but if his effort doesn’t improve defensively, then it all lacks meaning. The Lakers’ fate right now seems clear: they will look disoriented the rest of the season and won’t attract a superstar free agent this summer.

For LA’s long-term plans, they desperately need James’ full presence on both ends of the court.

If they get that for the rest of the season, and the squad looks less dysfunctional over that span, the Lakers will have a good chance at seeing the postseason. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, but look more like a unified team in this final stretch, they just might be able to lure in the likes of a Leonard, Irving or other top player come July.

The Lakers’ future rests on James’ shoulders, but whether he’s up for the challenge is yet to be seen. If he’s not, then the Lakers got the short end of his four-year contract: Instead of signing one of the greatest players of all time, they will have received an aging professional with basketball closer to the bottom than the top of his long list of priorities.

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