Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at LeBron James.
How did he play?
As well as ever, at least before the high ankle sprain that ultimately derailed his season (and that of the Lakers). James was averaging 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8 assists on 51.3% shooting until being undercut by Solomon Hill in a March 20 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and sat fourth in NBA.com’s weekly MVP rankings. Prior to Anthony Davis’ Achilles injury on Feb. 14, when the Lakers were 21-7, James ranked first in that weekly MVP evaluation, and was leading ESPN’s MVP voter straw poll with 53 first place votes on Feb. 10. Joel Embiid ranked second with 23 first-place votes at that point.
The rest was history. James missed the next 20 games, then returned for two, then missed another six as he desperately tried to rehab for the playoffs, playing in the final two regular season games and play-in tournament to gear up. He was still impressive, but was never able to regain his prior pop. In the postseason he put up 23.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8 assists, numbers that were similar to his prior averages on their face, but on worse efficiency (just 47.4% shooting) and without the First-Team All-Defense level burst that left the team never worse on that end than when he sat, prior to his injury. James was also far less effective at getting to the basket after getting hurt, a trend the numbers bore out.
He was still far from the biggest reason the Lakers lost in the first-round — he was one of the few players on the team to actually show up after Davis went down with a groin strain, in fact — and James deserves credit for being so productive despite his physical limitations. Still, all that is surely little solace after a freak collision derailed his chances at a fifth ring and fifth MVP.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
James is one of the few players the Lakers don’t have to worry about the contract status of. He just signed a two-year extension last offseason that automatically opted him into his 2021 player option, meaning he will be with the team until through (at least) 2022-23. He will turn 39 years old during the final year he is currently under contract for in Los Angeles.
Should he be back?
Well, duh. Didn’t you read the last two sections?
But I suppose, for LeBron in particular, this question should really be more along the lines of “what version of LeBron will the Lakers be getting next season?” That is the far more interesting hypothetical, and arguments can be made for a return to form, or a steady decline.
In the “return to form” column, the case is pretty simple: James was playing at an MVP-level before a freak injury, and still played at a superstar level in the playoffs afterwards, even if he was out there on basically one leg.
And despite all the fretting about his season, he still averaged more points per 36 minutes (27) than any of the years in his second stint with the Cavaliers, and shot his highest percentage from the field (51.3%) since leaving Cleveland.
Now, you never know if an aging player is going to fall right off a cliff, but there are almost zero signs right now for even the biggest pessimist to predict LeBron is on the precipice of doing so. With a summer to get his legs back under him, even 90% of last year’s version of LeBron would probably still be good enough, provided decent health from his co-star. And with the Lakers set to acquire Russell Westbrook to ease James’ creative burden, things should, in theory, be easier for LeBron next year. He may have less spacing to work in, but he’ll also likely have less offensive responsibility as well, and Westbrook’s presence can allow him to load manage and sit out at times if he wants to conserve energy with another capable playmaker on the roster.
The only argument against him bouncing back, really, is a history of players who are not LeBron, which perhaps renders it invalid. No player has ever maintained this level of play during a season in which they’re about to turn 37, but none had really done so during a season in which they turned 36, either. LeBron truly is, as he would say, “built different.”
Does that mean he’ll be immune from injury moving forward as he continues to age? Almost certainly not. But as long as no one undercuts him diving for a loose ball next season, there are plenty of reasons to believe that James will still be right where he always is: On the court, producing like one of the best players the NBA has ever seen.