If the tide doesn't suddenly shift, Lakers fans will soon ask, if they haven't already: Uh…why?
You don't have to squint to read the tea leaves and know LeBron isn't operating at full strength.
A few weeks back, he acknowledged that on the morning of Jan. 27 — when he woke up with soreness and swelling, leading to five missed games — his knee was a “total wreck.” Days later, he admitted that his knee would require extended rest to properly heal — and he didn't mean the All-Star break.
“The only way it'll be back to full strength is with rest. And I don't have the luxury of having rest. So it'll wait 'til the offseason.”
Lebron on his knee pic.twitter.com/03O2BxQ3l9
— Ralph Mason (@Ralph_MasonJr) February 16, 2022
When LeBron made those remarks after practice on Feb. 16, the Lakers were neck-and-neck with the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 8 seed and, more importantly, Anthony Davis was in the lineup. Since then, the Lakers have looked lifeless, LeBron has instigated then walked back an entire news cycle of drama, and Davis has hit the injured list again. He'll miss at least four more weeks.
Instead of battling for a Play-In spot, the Lakers have seemingly thrown in the towel. This AD-less group seems more interested in starting summer early than gearing up for a gritty, underdog playoff run.
Outwardly, James is pushing back on the notion that he might shut it down before the conversation even starts. Sources close to LeBron recently told ESPN's Dave McMenamin that LeBron would finish the season. He is, after all, chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, which he's on pace to break in 2022-23. He's a handful of games away from passing Karl Malone for the No. 2 spot. In fact, he could very well eclipse the Mailman on March 21 … in Cleveland. (His recent remarks on “The Shop” indicate that he profoundly cares about earning respect as an all-time great bucket-getter.)
LeBron has 36,664 points.
He needs 1,723 points to pass Kareem (that’s 60-70 more games)
He needs 3,336 points to start the 40k-10k-10k Club.
The Lakers are dead but I’d be shocked if he shut it down. Remember when we thought Malone was def passing Kareem? Every game counts.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 4, 2022
After the Lakers were walloped at home by the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, James struck a defiant chord.
“Until you stomp me out, cut my head off, bury me 12 feet under, then I got a chance,” he uttered. (Similarly, Frank Vogel said his remaining faith in the Lakers stems from the idea that any team with LeBron can win any basketball game.)
There are cracks in the King's armor. LeBron was blunt about the state of the Lakers after the Clippers' loss — echoing comments he made after they were thrashed by the Milwaukee Bucks in February.
“They're the better team,” he solemnly responded when asked what the Clippers 4-0 season sweep of the Lakers means to him.
Considering his reported displeasure with the Lakers' deadline inactivity — followed by a losing skid and AD's deflating foot sprain — one has to wonder if LeBron truly believes there's anything left for this team to accomplish. The Lakers rank 29th in offensive rating over the past four games.
To make matters more challenging, Los Angeles has one of the hardest remaining schedules in the NBA, including an upcoming stretch that will see them face seven upper-tier playoff teams in nine games (the Lakers are 9-23 vs. teams with winning records.)
From 3/21-4/7, the Lakers will face 7 quality playoff teams in 9 games. The other 2 games are against the team chasing them for the No. 9 seed, who just walloped LA by 25 points. pic.twitter.com/mfBYQZ4Vlz
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) March 4, 2022
“We still got 10 road games this month…so it don’t get easier for us,” LeBron said on Sunday.
James is still ballin', averaging 27.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 6.0 assists on 56.3% eFG since returning from his knee injury. However, his attentiveness and effort on the defensive end, along with his three-point shooting efficiency, have waned.
In 2018-19, pre-Play-In Era, LeBron sat out nine games down the stretch, including the final six, after the Lakers were out of the postseason hunt. If these Lakers can't reverse the trend, it's simply prudent to avoid any further risk of injury, especially for a player with nearly 60,000 miles on the odometer who will be asked to shoulder a massive burden next season — his 20th.
And remember: LeBron is playing the optics game, too. One can't totally dismiss the possibility that his camp is strategically setting up a shut-down by publicly stating his unwillingness to do so. If the Lakers continued downslide causes him to reconsider — perhaps after that Cleveland game, I would venture to speculate — it'll look more like a purely health-driven decision.
LeBron typically rehabs and trains with his own medical staff. Ultimately, whether he shuts it down or not will be his call. But, if the Lakers can't find the will to give a darn the rest of the way — why should he?