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What is fair to ask of LeBron James?

As LeBron James ages, his greatness as a player is tested more often than ever, but in a season where the Lakers have struggled to meet expectations, it’s his greatness as a leader that is being tested even more.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets

Kent Bazemore and Stanley Johnson are creeping towards halfcourt, being as discrete as they possibly can. With the Lakers’ losing streak snapped, Arena is still buzzing with energy, making it easier for the two culprits to execute their sneak-attack mission. Their target: LeBron James, who has his back turned to them as he does his post-game interview after a truly dominant performance.

As Bron explains to Lisa Saulters how he was able to score a season-high 56 points in leading the Lakers to a win, Baze and Stanley dash in with their ice-cold bottles of water, splashing them onto their leader’s head as he lets out a laugh and bolts away.

James’ spirits are high, and rightfully so. In his 19th season and at 37 years old, James has just become the only player to have recorded a 50+ point game before he’s turned 21 and after he’s turned 35. He was, once again, the best player on the floor on a night his team needed exactly that.

It’s a reminder of his greatness and his longevity. It’s also a reminder of the level he can still reach, and the impact he can still have in any given game, even with over 60,000 career minutes on his legs. After the game, head coach Frank Vogel framed the game as LeBron showing his will to win and to carry his team, and we all just nodded in agreement. What a player.

A few nights later, it’s overtime and LeBron’s shoulders are slumped. Not even a week earlier, he was exalting in a dominant win over the Warriors to break his team’s losing streak on national television. Tonight, however, it’s been a different story. The Rockets — not nearly in the Warriors’ class — came back from a small deficit in the fourth quarter to even force this extra 5 minutes, and have now blown the game open with a giant run once the OT began.

LeBron, coming off a missed game due to a sore knee, returned to the lineup looking mostly disinterested in playing a game vs. this caliber of opponent in the first place. He didn’t have his normal burst, which, due to the aforementioned sore knee, is understandable. His lack of attentiveness and general focus, however, isn’t explained away by a bum wheel.

On this night, LeBron just hasn’t been very locked in.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen him like this, so the details are familiar to more frequent observers. His defensive rotations are slow, if they happen at all. His normal unselfishness as a passer feels... forced, giving the ball up early in possessions and looking content to let his teammates try to make a play as he stands and watches. His drives to the hoop are less frequent, long jumpers more prevalent, and his general body language alternates between frustrated at whatever mistakes his teammates make, and ambivalence towards the general state of the game.

By the time the final buzzer sounds, his 23 points on 26 shot attempts, 5 turnovers, and team-worst plus-minus of -17 amplify a mostly hollow triple-double in a loss. Whatever good feelings the team had just a few days ago are gone.

There may be no player in the league who deserves to have his season examined and analyzed with as much context added as LeBron. That he can be both players described above in only a handful of days’ time almost necessitates it.

The reality is, with the miles he has on his legs and the number of years he’s been in the league, he’s not supposed to be as good as he still is, as consistently as he is. After spending more than half his life as an NBA player, he should be resting on the 2nd night of back-to-backs, having his minutes capped at 32 to 34 a night, and, at most, playing as a 1B to a second star, not playing 45 minutes as the main option in an OT game against one of the worst teams in the league while dealing with a sore knee.

Further, with every year truly a championship-or-bust scenario, to have a season so clearly falling short of expectations has to be maddening for LeBron. Whatever hand he had in helping to build this roster — and by all accounts, he was heavily involved — it does not ease the frustration that comes from losing this much, or make it at all more palatable. No, a season like this is, ultimately, a waste. And in year 19, he’s about a decade past the point where he can afford to give a season away and just look ahead to the next one.

On the flip side, LeBron is the best player on this team, and remains one of the very best in the entire league. And, as he has been on every team he’s played on (at least) since he was a high schooler, he’s also the leader. His teammates can — and do — take their cues from him each night, and with that comes a certain responsibility to hold himself to the same standards he holds them.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean doing everything his teammates do, or playing with the same burst and effort for every play that they might. The expectation cannot and should not be that LeBron sprints around the floor with the same juice that Stanley Johnson does, or that he exerts as much energy defensively as Austin Reaves. Again, the context of where he is in his career, not to mention the load he still has to carry offensively, dictates that.

But none of that means that the same attentiveness he’s asking of them on each play doesn’t need to be delivered by him; that the same valuing of possessions and good in-play decision-making he wants from them isn’t necessary from him.

On too many possessions in games just like — and including — the one vs. the Rockets, LeBron has been quick to throw up his hands, gesture to the bench, hang his head, or slump his shoulders in frustration at what a teammate does wrong, all while playing with a level of individual engagement that falls well below his own standard. This sort of bad body language doesn’t inspire confidence and, from an outsider’s perspective, looks actively harmful towards building the type of togetherness that is needed at this point in the season.

It’s understandable that there will be nights when LeBron isn’t at his best physically, or when he’s simply not as effective as he’d like to be. In fact, it’s inevitable. Father time is undefeated, and while LeBron is keeping him at bay for longer than any great player ever has, it’d be silly to ignore the hints of him showing his age and losing an MPH or two off his fastball as he gets closer to his 40th birthday than his 30th one. He’s still such an amazing and, maybe more important, smart player that he continues to evolve and refine his skill to maintain a high level of effectiveness on most nights anyway.

But that sort of compensation and ability to adapt individually can’t serve as a stand-in for what the team also needs from him.

I get that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Anthony Davis is in his prime, and was going to carry this load, not miss more than half the season with various injuries. Russell Westbrook was brought in to be the team’s third star and help insulate LeBron from having to be the team’s main offensive shot creator, not scuffle his way through most of the year and have his already sketchy efficiency fall off even more.

None of this is exactly fair. Nearly two decades into his career and staring at his basketball mortality on a team that is so severely underperforming their preseason expectations while still being such a good player individually, it’s easy to empathize with LeBron. The ask feels gigantic every night and, in theory, he shouldn’t have to play well against even the bad teams just to give the Lakers a chance.

Yet, here we are, and now, as it’s seemingly always been, it’s back to LeBron to be the ultimate problem solver.

It’s not realistic to ask LeBron to be the player he was when dominating the Warriors every night. Those games are special because they’re rare, and we should cherish them for that reason. But, it’s also not realistic for LeBron to be the player he was against the Rockets, either. Because that player, regardless of the counting stats and production or the context to why he’s not as engaged as he could be, isn’t the leader this team needs.

There is a middle ground here. And if there’s any player who can find it, it’s LeBron. But he must actively seek it out. It’s the burden of being the best player and the leader of the team.

And, ultimately, whether he asked for that or not, it’s what he needs to fulfill each night.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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