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.
Everyone has been waiting for Father Time to finally catch up to LeBron James, forcing him to retire so that he would stop beating up on all other 29 teams in the Association. It even spurred this hilarious, now-viral Tweet from 2015, where a Warriors fan thanked the man upstairs that LeBron was 30 years old and that his level of performance at that point couldn’t “go on for much longer.”
Lebron is 30, this fuckery won't go on for much longer, thank god— Gucci Belt Dell (@urklespaces) May 25, 2015
Narrator: It went on for much longer.
LeBron turned 37 years old this season, and although the statistics continue to jump off of his Basketball-Reference page, his growing age did show in different ways during the 2021-22 campaign.
Those different ways were part of the reason that the team did not make the playoffs — or even the play-in — but instead of returning to the blame game that we fans (and the team) have played all too often throughout the season, let’s review Year 19 for The King, a campaign that included some of his vintage prowess on (and off) the court.
How did he play?
LeBron averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists during the 2021-22 season. He made 52.4% of his field goals, which was the highest mark he’s had since becoming a Laker. Even more impressive is that those 30.3 points per game are the second-most points he’s averaged in a season, falling just short of his 31.4 PPG during the 2005-06 Cavaliers season.
LeBron’s incredible scoring output put him in contention for the league’s scoring title, allowing him to compete with the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the top spot, and gave us Lakers fans something to be excited about heading towards the end of the season, even as the team’s chances of making the postseason dwindled each and every game.
Unfortunately, LeBron fell short of the 58 games played qualifier that would have officially put him in the running for the title, but either way, Embiid ended up besting him with 30.6 PPG. It would have been LeBron’s second scoring title since the 2007-08 season, when he averaged 30 PPG.
LeBron came close to that qualification, playing in 56 games that culminated with him being shut down for the final two games of the season due to a sprained right ankle. That total brings him to 101 games played out of the 154 regular-season games across the past two seasons, which is easily the highest percentage of games missed (35%) across two campaigns for LeBron since he was drafted in 2003.
LeBron, as Anthony Davis has done, can chalk that up to bad luck, as the sprained ankles he suffered both this season and last season only happened due to a player’s foot happening to be underneath him as he was landing. These situations would cause a sprained ankle for anyone, whether it’s a middle-aged man at your local gym or an ultra-athletic 18-year-old LeBron James fresh out of Akron, Ohio.
However, that ankle sprain wasn’t the sole injury that LeBron sustained, as he also had knee soreness that first flared up after a Jan. 25 win against the Nets, with no discernible moment that caused it. He missed five games following that win, with that soreness keeping LeBron on the injury report as questionable (despite almost always playing) for a majority of the rest of the season.
That injury — as well as his groin injury in the 2018-19 season — show that it’s not just fluke injuries that are plaguing LeBron. It’s that damn, aforementioned Father Time as well, seemingly heeding the above plea to finally stop the f---ery. The wear-and-tear of playing center this season probably didn’t help either, as LeBron played the 5 a lot this year, both due to injuries to AD and the terrible other big man options on the roster.
His age, those injuries, and the team’s generally low level of success caused LeBron to be a little grumpier this season, as he probably also had career-highs in on-court finger-pointing and yelling at teammates. The frustration also seemingly caused LeBron’s defensive effort to plummet, as he regularly stared at open 3-point shooters instead of closing out.
LeBron’s on-court frustrations manifested themselves against many of his teammates, but most notably so against a specific one in Russell Westbrook. This did not go unnoticed by his teammates, as it was reported that players were generally “bothered by how regularly James’ shoulders would slump and how his head would hang after botched opportunities to score or defend.”
Still, while the defense wasn’t there this year, LeBron has to pick his battles on that end of the court as he ages. And given that he probably saw how bad this team was as clearly as we did... he saved those battles for a later date.
But with that and the harsh reality of his declining health in recent years put to the side, this individual season for LeBron was a rousing success given the fact that he showed he can still contribute to a team with the best-of-the-best in the NBA. He just needs more help from his teammates for it to matter.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
LeBron has one season left on the two-year, $85 million extension he signed in December 2020. That means he could leave Hollywood in 2023, however, a two-year extension will be available to be signed between the Lakers and LeBron on Aug. 4.
Should he be back?
According to a certain guy that gets paid to scream on ESPN at the crack of dawn, the Lakers should trade him this summer. But while Jeanie Buss and the Lakers could do that if he doesn’t want to sign that extension — as a trade could allow them to collect some assets for his services instead of letting him walk for nothing — I’m not sure if the Lakers want to be the first franchise to ever trade LeBron James, given what type of message that’d send to future stars they’d want to attract.
Either way, it doesn’t seem like this idea is even being slightly entertained by the team, as The Athletic’s Sam Amick recently reported that even a “no” from LeBron on the extension wouldn’t cause Buss to consider trading him.
So, will LeBron be back next season? I’d say it’s a 99%, maybe a 95% certainty. But that percentage drops way, way lower for the 2023-24 campaign. It’s also been reported by Amick since the season ended that “it’s clear James is considering playing out this contract rather than signing a two-year extension,” even if others have made it clear he’s not truly considering leaving soon.
Brian Windhorst:— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) May 7, 2022
"LeBron wants to be a Laker. He wants to live in Los Angeles. He loves living in Los Angeles. ... He still believes he can take the Lakers to heights. He wants to be a Laker."
(via @LakersDailyCom) pic.twitter.com/ZT07IvqQdX
But earlier, I mentioned LeBron still being close to the peak of his powers on the court. And Amick’s report is the latest indication that James’ sword is still just as sharp away from the hardwood, too, something he put on full display during the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend, where LeBron conducted interviews that included comments such as...
- “The door’s not closed on that” in regards to possibly playing for the Cavs a third time.
- It’s not a question of “if,” but “when” he will play with his son Bronny James in the NBA (Bronny is draft-eligible in 2024).
- Randomly praising Thunder GM Sam Presti not too long after he was frustrated with Rob Pelinka for not using a first-round pick to improve the team at the 2022 trade deadline.
That type of off-court, passive-aggressive politicking has become a hallmark for LeBron throughout his career, but it’s never reared its ugly head during his time with the purple-and-gold until this season.
The timing of it can’t be coincidental, either, with a two-year extension (probably) on the table and his son’s looming draft eligibility coming in two years.
So we’re going to get another year of watching LeBron James in a Lakers uniform. It will also, barring injuries, most likely feature him passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most points scored in an NBA career. However, the 2022-23 season will hopefully not solely be a year to marvel at the individual and cumulative greatness of The King.
Hopefully, the offseason — with free agency starting two days prior to when LeBron can sign that extension — proves fruitful enough for the team to realistically return to championship contention. And if it doesn’t, LeBron may decline that extension.
And if that happens... well... buckle up for a season that may be even more dramatic than this previous one.