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Is LeBron James really ‘stat-padding’ if that’s his team’s only chance to win?

So-called “stat-padding” is an almost universally loathed concept, but for Lebron James, it’s both the only way his team can win games, and also one of the only ways Lakers games are fun anymore.

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I have been blessed to see many great Lakers teams in my lifetime. From Magic and Kareem, to Kobe and Shaq, to LeBron and Anthony Davis, I’ve seen Lakers teams run roughshod over the league and win championships across every NBA era.

So I’ll never take greatness for granted. Ever. Cherish the great teams as much as you can. They’re rarer than you think, even for a franchise with as much historical success as the Lakers.

Of course, as much as we wanted the 2021-22 Lakers to join the likes of those types of teams in the pantheon of forum blue and gold greats, that’s not going to happen. Barring some sort of miracle, this season will end at some point in the next month, in some sort of disappointing and frustrating fashion. A wonderful win in Toronto can obscure that temporarily, but there’s just not enough time left for the Lakers to actually come together in a way that will propel them into contention. And that’s okay. I’ve made my peace with that.

As this season comes to a close, then, there’s been a lot of chatter about LeBron James and what his goals really are (or should be) over this final stretch of games. Should he be playing as much as he is? Is it time for him to sit out games? Why is he playing so many minutes, particularly in games the team is struggling to even stay competitive in, much less win?

Quickly, though, these thoughts have transformed from questions to accusations.

LeBron only wants to pad his stats! He wants to win a scoring title! After notching his 10,000th assist in a recent game — becoming the only player in the history of the NBA with at least 10,000 career points, rebounds, and assists — he has Kareem’s all-time scoring record in his sights! If Bron can’t win at the team level, he’ll sure as hell win on an individual one!

And, to this I say: “So the hell what if that is the case?”

Just as I’ve seen great teams in my life, I’ve also been fortunate to see all of the great players who powered them. And just as with those teams, I’m a firm believer in appreciating great players for as long as we’re able to — particularly one like James, who is approaching two decades in the league and is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

I certainly understand the frustration that comes from losing games or from watching the team as a whole struggle. I’m also more than aware of the times where LeBron isn’t at his best, and how those types of games can feel especially dispiriting. But, if we’re being honest, even the worst LeBron games offer at least one flurry of fantastic play that has us on the edge of our seats and eager to see what he’ll do next. And, usually, we get even more than that. After all, how do you think he’s so close to leading the league in scoring or putting up some of the boxscores that he is?

All of which brings me to the more important point here. Since the All-Star break, and going into the Wizards game, the Lakers have only won three games in 12 tries. In those contests the team did win, here are LeBron’s stat lines:

  • 56 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists
  • 50 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists
  • 36 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists

Notice a theme here? The surest way for the Lakers to win a game right now is for LeBron to be otherworldly from a statistical standpoint. This team simply isn’t talented (or healthy) enough as currently constructed for them to be competitive night-to-night otherwise. With that, I don’t see anything wrong with actively rooting for Bron to go out there and chase all the numbers he can get. There’s a direct correlation between those individual pursuits and the team’s larger goals, and the numbers bear that out.

Beyond that, watching LeBron go off is, you know, fun. Or at least the closest version of that you’re going to get in an otherwise depressing campaign. And, if nothing else, him giving us a scoring barrage, or a highlight (or three) in a game in which his team is clearly outgunned and overmatched is something to remind us of why we watch in the first place. This is, after all, an entertainment league. And while winning is the most preferred version of that, a great player showing us why he’s great in the first place is at least a decent consolation prize.

Now, could he sit out a game here or there? Yes — and if his knee continues to bother him (especially on the 2nd night of back-to-backs), I fully expect him to. Just as I expect him to play fewer minutes in games that are totally lost, and/or games where the team starts too slow, or isn’t able to make a push to make things close enough to snatch away a win if a team happens to let their foot so far off the gas for long enough to let the Lakers back into it.

But, in the absence of those situations, LeBron going out there and trying to put up the types of numbers his team needs in order to try to win games doesn’t bother me at all.

Lastly, as much as we try to push this stuff to the side and (rightfully) place it behind team goals in the hierarchy of what’s important, individual successes and achievements still matter. Especially for great players who are always jockeying — whether consciously or not — to position their legacy as strongly as they can. LeBron is no different, and I don’t begrudge him stacking these numbers and adding to his career totals in ways that can only enhance how his career is viewed after he retires.

And the fact that he’s doing some of these things in a Lakers uniform does make it special, at least to me. No, LeBron isn’t one of ours like Magic or Kobe was. He wasn’t homegrown here, and he did have a full-on hall of fame career without his Lakers stint at all. He’s much more Wilt or Shaq in that way. But, after next season (his 20th in the NBA), Lebron will have spent one-quarter of his NBA career wearing a Lakers uniform. And when it’s all said and done, these years and the achievements he accomplishes while wearing that uniform will be a part of his Lakers (and career) legacy. That matters.

So, go out there and cook, Bron. Get all the numbers you can. Because while this season will never be what any of us hoped it could be, as Friday reminded us, it can still be as special as you make it on any given 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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