Early on in the season, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant was one the names most frequently batted around when discussing star free agents the Los Angeles Lakers could pair with LeBron James.
And then, well, he said that he understands why stars might not want to play with James.
”So much hype comes from being around LeBron from other people,” Durant told Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report then. “He has so many fanboys in the media. Even the beat writers just fawn over him. I’m like, we’re playing basketball here, and it’s not even about basketball at certain points. So I get why anyone wouldn’t want to be in that environment because it’s toxic. Especially when the attention is bulls--t attention, fluff. It’s not LeBron’s fault at all; it’s just the fact you have so many groupies in the media that love to hang on every word. Just get out of the way and let us play basketball.”
James said he was initially “pissed” when he heard those comments, but chose not to respond until he had heard the full context. After a phone call from Durant to clear things up, it sounds like the two are good now, even if Durant still seems to be far from a guarantee to join James on the Lakers this summer.
Window into Durant’s motivations or not, the other effect of those comments, though, was that they created a narrative that stars don’t want to play with James. It’s a narrative that has (fair or unfair) persisted throughout this season as we head towards a huge free agency period for James and the Lakers.
It’s also a narrative that James told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report he’s not concerned with:
James has heard the speculative chatter—that other stars don’t want to join him. That they’d have to sacrifice too much to play with him. That the Lakers have lost their magical charm.
”They got me,” James retorts, laughing. “I’m very confident. And I’m confident that players want to play with me. I’m very confident in that.”
It’s worth noting that Durant’s comments were about the media that covers James — a media climate that hasn’t changed with the Lakers — so James’ game may not affect Durant’s feelings, or those of other stars.
Still, it must be pointed out that James was essentially just as productive statistically as ever this year, even when coming off of the most serious injury of his basketball life, a groin strain that will ultimately cost him a career-high 27 games this season.
James’ 35.2 minutes per game were the lowest of his career, but he made great use out of his more limited floor time, averaging 27.4 points, 8.3 assists and 8.5 rebounds on 51 percent shooting (his lowest field-goal percentage since his first year in Miami, but still stellar efficiency).
The 33.9 percent James shot from behind the arc was a step back from the last two seasons, but given that nearly every Laker regressed as a 3-point shooter this year, it’s fair to wonder if there are external factors like the offense — or, you know, a serious groin injury — that affected James’ average there.
But even with those issues, James still scored the most points per 36 minutes he’s ever scored in his entire career (28, per Basketball-Reference). He was making the most of his time on the floor, and especially when factoring in that he was essentially dominating on willpower and smarts (without his typical physical burst) after fighting to come back from his injury, it’s clear that James still has at least a few years left as one of the greatest players in the world, even if he’s not the undisputed best anymore.
This isn’t to dismiss the chances that no star joins James on the Lakers in July. Given that the loudest whispers point towards most of them choosing elsewhere, that’s a possibility. James’ per-minute productivity also doesn’t eliminate the external factors surrounding him (the way his teammates will be covered in the media as the problem if they lose, and James will get the lion’s share of the credit if they win, for example).
There is also the reality that for some players it can be hard to adjust to James’ playing style, from his constant ball dominance to how his passes can come from all over the place at any time, and that teammates have to be ready to shoot immediately with the ball in their hands less than ever.
All of those things — and more — are real factors that could affect the Lakers’ free agency odds, as well as the personal relationships various stars on the market already have. Perhaps they’re also part of the reason that an anonymous executive in Beck’s must-read story is quoted as saying that “not many of these wings or point guards are going to want to partner with LeBron” and that “LeBron’s best chance at getting another star with him is going to be Anthony Davis, Boogie Cousins, the bigs.”
That may be true, but it is just as worth noting that there has generally been peril associated with doubting James’ ability to get what he wants. If he thinks that stars want to play with him and are going to join this summer, that seems worth noting. Maybe it’s just the confidence all alpha-male athletes have, but it also seems very possible that James may have a card or two up his sleeve. Like, say, bringing on Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant as a well-compensated co-star in Space Jam 2 who just so happens to also sign with the Lakers.
I’m not saying that’s happening, but can we really rule it out? This summer is going to be fascinating on a lot of levels, not the least of which will be the lengths James and the Lakers may go to in order to prove James’ free agency prediction prescient.
Just four more games until the real games begin.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.