There’s really nothing to say about LeBron James that has not already been said countless other times, in nearly every way imaginable. He remains one of, if not the, face of the entire NBA. He is not just a certified legend, but one of the handful of players who moves the needle from a consumer standpoint — for casuals and die-hards, alike.
And while his legacy is set in stone, this was one of the first seasons where some marginal slippage seems like it could be more than a blip and a bit more lasting. While he was still (at least) tied with Anthony Davis as the team’s most important player, there’s a strong argument to be made he wasn’t the team’s best player over the course of the full season — or even the playoffs. The standard he reached and threshold he cleared were still insanely high, especially for a player of his longevity. On a night-to-night basis though, it was Davis who carried the heavier load, and whose play proved the access point to the team’s ceiling (however high that would end up being).
None of this is a demerit on James, of course. Davis, clearly in his physical prime and just turned 30, should be the team’s best player over the long haul. That James is even in the argument at this phase of his career is a testament to his greatness and enduring willpower to defy father time’s attempts to drag him to the depths of mediocrity where mere mortals of the game reside.
That he continues to do it, and play to the level he does, is worthy of celebration. And this season, as much as any that he’s played while donning the forum blue and gold of the Lakers, was one in which celebrating him and all that he has achieved — even in the face of the team falling short of their ultimate goal — felt as right as it possibly could have.
How Was His Season?
LeBron James just had, by any statistical measure — not to mention the eye test, the most successful and impactful 20th season in NBA history. No player who has played as long as him has been anywhere near this good, this late in their career. Ever. Period.
In the regular season, James averaged 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists in 55 games, earning himself 3rd Team All-NBA in the process. Statistically he wasn’t just one of the more productive players in a single season sense, but he also accomplished major feats in terms of longevity. He passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, leapt into the top-5 of NBA career assists leaders, and the top-10 of career steals leaders — while also becoming the only player ever to hit the 30K points, 10K assists, and 10K rebounds milestones in their career.
In the playoffs, James was a bit less productive (more on that in second) than his career standards, but raised his level in the team’s most critical games — not just in terms of his overall play, but in his leadership of a relatively inexperienced playoff team by setting the proper tone and focus to get the most out of a talented yet (at times) mercurial group. In the team’s final game of the playoffs, James had a vintage first half performance, scoring 31 of his game-high 40 points — while (essentially) playing 48 minutes in the process — to keep the Lakers in it vs. the eventual champion Nuggets.
While LeBron’s play was unquestionably elite, particularly in the context of his age and years in the league, he also suffered a foot injury that cost him an extended chunk of the season; an injury that saw him need to return at less than 100% before the end of the regular season in order to ramp up as best he could for the team’s playoff push. It has been an ongoing theme of LeBron’s Lakers’ tenure to miss time with injury, and at this stage of his career with as much wear and tear he has on his body, it makes perfect sense that he would be at greater risk for such things.
That said, understanding this is the case is one thing, but it’s quite another to properly be able to plan and account for them when they actually do occur. And when he’s still such a critical piece of the team, and when his production is so vital to the team’s overall success, it’s basically impossible. The Lakers were able to compensate as well as could be expected with some elite level play from AD and after remaking their roster at the trade deadline, but LeBron’s inability to stay healthy or to consistently live at his peak levels during the playoffs are also parts of his season’s story.
Fair or not, such is the fate of being evaluated as one of the game’s best players and one of the league’s true superstars.
Should the Lakers Bring Him Back?
Uh... absolutely yes.
That said, LeBron’s return is less about what the Lakers want and more about what he decides he’d like to do. The foot injury he suffered could have easily ended his season, and would have if he’d have followed the advice of more than one doctor who recommended he have surgery to repair the torn tendon he suffered. Returning from that and then falling short in the manner the team did seemed to test LeBron’s resolve as he hinted at potential retirement in the immediate aftermath of the sweep at the hands of the Nuggets.
So, if LeBron is not back next season, it will not be because of anything the Lakers decide, but rather because LeBron himself has determined there is nothing else to play for. Do I envision that happening? I do not...
Will He Return?
LeBron obviously recognizes the stage of his career he is at and that the end is now in (relative) sight, but a close examination of his team also shows them not being so far away from a being able to compete for a championship. So with him under contract for at least one more season, I do believe he’ll be back and ready to give it a go with a team that, hopefully, has made some moves that can get them closer to being able to compete with the Nuggets (and the other top contenders) for a championship.
Of course, it would not surprise me if LeBron does exert some pressure on the team to continue to make the types of moves that can help them do just that. Two offseasons ago, LeBron was reportedly one of the more vocal voices championing the trade that brought in Russell Westbrook. In the two seasons since that move, Bron has been much more strategic in how much he has vocalized about roster-building, instead favoring a more hands-off approach that has separated whatever his beliefs are from the actual decision-making process... at least publicly.
Could I see that start to shift some? I could — especially in the aftermath of the team reaching the conference finals and his own comments that hinted at retirement. The time for the Lakers to push toward another championship with LeBron on the roster is right now. Examining every angle and charging forward as hard as possible towards building the best roster that is capable of achieving this goal is something that not only LeBron would want, but something the front office should too.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.