This was always going to happen.
Ever since LeBron James signed with this Lakers team, with the talent (or lack thereof) that would surround him, we were heading for a reckoning. That reckoning has come.
On Tuesday night, people shared a photo of LeBron sitting on the edge of the bench, alone, separate from the rest of his teammates while the Lakers got trashed by the Pacers by 42 points. Some argued that James was sitting in his usual spot at the edge of the bench, and the empty seats were there for players who were in the game.
Whether he was alone on the bench or not, what is inarguable is that the Lakers lost by 42 points on Tuesday night while rumors swirled about nearly the entire team being traded away in pursuit of the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, reports that the Lakers organization is by no means trying to hide.
LaVar Ball is publicly angling to have his son traded to the Suns instead of the Pelicans, seeming to accept that Lonzo has no future with the Lakers.
There have also been reports this week that LeBron isn’t sure that head coach Luke Walton is the man to take this team forward.
What it all leads to is an almost certainly awkward situation, and whether or not the bench photo is indicative of that, the reality is that the only person who is absolutely certain to be with the Lakers moving forward is LeBron James.
LeBron has been knocked at various points in his career for not being ruthless enough. Michael Jordan had that killer instinct. So did Kobe Bryant. LeBron, because he’s more of a playmaker than either of those two and had some moments early in his postseason career when it appeared that he deferred to teammates (maybe), got stuck with the unfair label of being passive.
But watching him navigate this Lakers situation, it’s only made it more clear to me just how much of a killer James is.
LeBron knows that this team isn’t good enough to get him another ring. He knew it when he arrived in Los Angeles and he knows it now. They have some fun young talent and some guys who will one day be difference makers, maybe, in a playoff series, but this roster is not going toe-to-toe with the Celtics or the Sixers, let alone the Rockets or the Warriors.
We can knock him for not doing it himself, for not willing this team to a championship like he did a few of those Cavaliers teams, and hoo boy some of those Cavaliers teams were bad. But James is being realistic. Realistic about what the current state of the NBA is and what the current state of his roster is.
The Lakers aren’t good enough right now. James knows it. And there’s a reason he hasn’t come out in public support of his current teammates, made it explicitly clear he thinks they are great and shouldn’t be traded. He could do that, easily. He could call up once of his media contacts and say: “This team is good, and I’m committed to these players and this coach.”
It would solve a lot of the awkwardness in the short term. And who knows, maybe he’ll do it. But for now, James has been silent. In a way, it’s the most honest thing he can do. He’s in the business of cementing his legacy and winning championships, and if these players aren’t good enough to get him there, it would be dishonest for him to say otherwise.
James will live with an awkward moment, and he’ll live with a 42-point regular season loss to the Pacers in which the opposing fans are chanting at his teammates that “LeBron’s gonna trade you.”
James is a killer. He’s a winner. He could be buddy-buddy, or tell Lakers brass the guys he has are good enough and let’s not rock the boat too much. But that’s not who he is. He’ll alienate his teammates in the near term if, in the long term, it means he can go and get another ring.