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Does LeBron James deserve to be forced to ride out the Russell Westbrook trade?

LeBron James played an inarguable role in the Lakers trading for Russell Westbrook. How long should he have to pay for a decision he wasn’t alone in making?

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The response to just about anything LeBron James says or does almost never involves just the topic at hand. It’s impossible to talk about James with almost anyone without their preconceived notions painting whatever the subject might be, even if he happens to be saying the most obvious thing.

Dating back to this time last season, James has been saying something anyone who has watched the Lakers should probably agree with: He and Russell Westbrook haven’t worked out on the basketball court and that if the Lakers want a chance at winning their 18th championship with him, they have to move Westbrook’s $47 million contract.

This shouldn’t create ripples. There really isn’t anything to disagree with here, and yet as a result of his last few interviews calling implicitly for action on the above fact, rather than merely agree and hope that the Lakers front office fixes that issue, for a variety of reasons, even Lakers fans are pushing back and demanding he sleep in the bed he made.

Such a stance ignores that James was by no means alone in pushing for Westbrook and, if those fans get their wish, the Lakers’ chances at winning a championship for at least five years — if not significantly longer — would be effectively wiped out.

There are also cultural dynamics to keep in mind here. James has long been a target of conservative (mostly White) politics and represents a Black league taking power from White owners. So when I hear how he needs to pay for forcing a predominantly White front office to make a bad trade and that demand takes precedent over rooting interests, the sentiment sets off some red flags.

James is not the team’s Vice President of Basketball Operations. He’s not the General Manager (they still don’t have one of those). He’s not the team’s Principle Governor, nor a member her infamous Inner Circle. A lot of people had to okay the Westbrook trade, even given James’ preference for it. Either those people also had bad instincts on this front or they lacked enough conviction to stand up for what they thought was right for the franchise.

There is no positive way to spin Rob Pelinka, Jeanie Buss, either of the Rambii, or Tim Harris’ involvement in this. When you make such a disastrous move, shit splatters everywhere. Maybe some in the organization were reaching for ponchos to protect themselves, but no one did anything meaningful enough to stop the Lakers from heading down this path.

Also, and this is a meaningful point that bears repeating: Let’s say James was the loudest voice in the room arguing for Westbrook. He’s also been the loudest voice in the room arguing for whatever needs to be done to get the franchise back on track. He’s done so while still playing at an All-NBA level. He should be Lakers fans’ ally here, yet for some weird reason, he’s seen as this outsider making ridiculous demands of the poor, helpless souls tasked with carrying out his whims.

Compare that to Buss taking a victory lap through leaks about her preference not to trade Westbrook this summer now that he hasn’t been a disaster off the bench and, yeah, seems like James has the right instincts on this front.

So what’s going on there? Why would fans put their own rooting interests behind hoping that James be shown a lesson for pushing for one of the worst trades in Lakers history? Sure, James isn’t a homegrown superstar in the same way Kobe Bryant was, but he still rescued the Lakers from years of ineptitude, legitimized Jeanie and that Inner Circle and, oh, you know, WON THE LAKERS A CHAMPIONSHIP.

Buss points all the time to the 2020 title for good will towards Pelinka when asked to explain an extension she felt so iffy about that she lashed out at it being made public. Does that not also apply to James and Davis? Pelinka is significantly more replicable than either James or Davis, so what’s going on there? Which brings us to another explanation for siding with Buss over James:

For whatever reason, James isn’t seen as a “true Laker,” which, fine. He was drafted by Cleveland, then won in Miami, then returned to win as a Cavalier, and then came to the Lakers. He was Kobe’s top rival and who could ever forget the muppet blood feud of the late 2010s?

But again, James was the best player on a title team. He helped bring Davis. If he plays out the extension that kicks in next season, he’ll have spent seven years as a Laker and thus more time in L.A. than he did in Miami. Injuries notwithstanding, he’s given the Lakers several years of incredible basketball. He’ll never be Magic or Kobe, but the idea that he isn’t Laker enough to care about the front office lying to him about valuing the final years of his prime is wild.

Yes, James saw an organization in flux in a city that would help elevate his business interests. Yes, he probably applied too much pressure on the Lakers to carry out his worst instincts as a roster builder and as a result of the Westbrook trade, the Lakers may never again have a viable chance at winning another ring with James. But he was by no means alone in pushing for that deal and notably seems like the only person pushing to actually address the issue.

Should James accept culpability for his role in acquiring Westbrook? Sure. Should he be held to a higher standard than the man whose literal job it is to build the roster? Should his punishment be carried out over two seasons now, and cost him his last chances at vying for his fifth championship? That seems excessive. And for Lakers fans, rooting for that scenario to play out just seems outright misguided.

Today on “I Loathe Basketball,” Harrison Faigen and I spoke in depth about all this, why the blame games wholly misses the point, Harrison insulting my infant son, and more.

You can listen to the full episode below, and to make sure you never miss a show, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Podcasts.

And for a short-form recap pod, check out Lakers Lowdown, in which Anthony Irwin recaps the previous day’s news and gets you ready for the day ahead in LakerLand, every weekday morning on the Silver Screen & Roll Podcast feed.

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