LeBron James is still playing at an All-NBA level at 37.
But the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to take advantage of what James brings just once since he signed with them four years ago, winning a championship in 2020. They made the playoffs one other time and missed the playoffs twice.
That’s not exactly what the Lakers had in mind when James left Cleveland in 2018, but here they are, searching for ways to rejoin the elite in the Western Conference, which is no easy task with Golden State, Phoenix the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Memphis and Dallas also in the mix.
“I came here to win a championship and I want to win more,” said James following last season in which the Lakers finished 33-49, missed the playoffs, fired coach Frank Vogel and replaced him with Darvin Ham.
Can the Lakers maximize what James has left and can they do it before he decides (possibly) to finish his career elsewhere?
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The Lakers have many issues to address, including Russell Westbrook, the logjam at the guard position, 3-point shooting, defense, and the roster in general.
But it starts with James, and to an almost equal degree Anthony Davis, and the superstars’ ability not only to perform at an All-NBA level but to stay on the court.
“When you’ve got a generational talent like AD and he goes, it puts too much pressure on LeBron who’s going into season 20,” seven-time NBA champ and former Lakers forward Robert Horry told USA TODAY Sports.
Since the Lakers won the title in the Orlando bubble, James has played in 101 of 154 regular-season games, and Davis has played in 76 of 154, missing more than he’s played in those two seasons.
“I mean, at the end of the day, the reason why we were not very good together is we weren’t on the damn floor together,” James said. “That is the No. 1 thing. I mean, how many games did we play together? We played, what, a quarter of the season together? Less than a quarter of a season. I played more games with my high school teammates in a season, and we only played 27 games. So there it is.”
If the Lakers don’t have those two on the court together for 75% of their games, their chances of doing anything in the West drop significantly.
LeBron chasing Kareem for NBA all-time scoring title
Last season, James averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks, and shot 52.4% from the field and 35.9% on 3-pointers, earning him a record 18th appearance on one of three All-NBA teams.
There’s no overt sign of him slowing down this season (aside from injury), and at some point in the second half of the season, James is expected to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He is 1,325 points behind Abdul-Jabbar, and if he scores 25 points per game, he will be close to the record right around the All-Star Game in February.
Will that be the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy Lakers season?
Much of that depends on Davis. The Lakers need him on the court, and they need more of 2020 bubble/playoffs Anthony Davis than they had the past two seasons. Davis shot 53.2% last season but just 18.6% on 3s and averaged 23.2 points – down from 26.1 and 33% on 3s in 2019-20.
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That’s where it starts, but it continues with the rest of the roster, which is a dilemma. The Lakers acquired Westbrook before the start of the 2021-22 season, but he wasn’t a perfect fit and was blamed for a portion of the Lakers’ struggles.
The Lakers looked at potential trades for Westbrook. Could they get Kyrie Irving from Brooklyn? Is there a deal to be done with Indiana for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield? Utah is liquidating its veterans, making Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley available.
The problem is Westbrook’s expiring contract that pays him $47 million this season. Even though Westbrook comes off the books following the season, that’s a hefty amount to take on, and teams wanted compensation in the name of draft picks.
The Lakers have been reluctant to give up first-round picks because while they want to win another championship with James, they want a future in a post-LeBron era. Also, the Lakers don’t want to take on any more salary in trades beyond next season because they will have salary-cap space to attract a high-level free agent to play alongside James, who this summer signed a two-year extension through 2024-25, and Davis.
New coach Darvin Ham has plenty of challenges
While the Lakers navigate the future, they also have this season. With not much salary-cap flexibility, the Lakers added Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schroder, Thomas Bryant, Lonnie Walker IV, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Troy Brown Jr and drafted Max Christie.
With Westbrook, Beverley, Schroder and Kendrick Nunn, the Lakers have a logjam at the guard spot. On top of that, outside of Nunn, they don’t help the Lakers’ 3-point shooting, which was 22nd last season in terms of percentage.
“They need their bench to step up because every major team has to have a good bench,” Horry said. “They’re going to need Russ, Nunn, Bryant and all these guys to step up and do things that nobody thinks they’re going to be able to do.”
Ham was hired, in part, to help with a defense that finished 21st. Beverley is expected to help in that area, and Westbrook can be a disruptive defender. Davis is a four-time All-NBA defense selection and has the ability to protect the rim and guard on the perimeter. He was effective in the 2020 playoffs, and the Lakers need that kind of defense from Davis.
That’s a lot for Ham to wade through in his first season as an NBA head coach. He has to make roster decisions, find the right rotations, improve the defense and get the best out of a less than ideal roster. There’s a lot to fix, and high expectations remain.
“Darvin has that presence because you have to be able to command a room,” Horry said. “You get someone like Darvin who’s been through the trenches, who has won championships, who’s guarded some of the greatest players to play this game, who has coached some of the greatest players to play in this game, guys have a tendency to listen.”
It helps to have James and it will help even more if James and Davis play at a high level together for most of the season.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt