When LeBron James entered the game for his final stretch on Friday, his Los Angeles Lakers trailed the Boston Celtics by 11 points. This was hardly his fault. He was the only Laker with a positive point-differential at that moment. His team had won his minutes by four points … but lost the ones he missed by 15. This is standard LeBron protocol after 19 years. No player in NBA history has done more to lift underperforming teammates than James. An 11-point road comeback is old hat for him at this point. But one player can only do so much.
Three minutes later, he left the game with the Lakers trailing by 19. All told, the Lakers managed to turn a 14-point lead into a 22-point defeat. Such collapses have become commonplace this season. The Lakers blew a 26-point lead to the Thunder mere weeks ago, but LeBron's return was supposed to prevent such embarrassments. James held up his end of the bargain. He managed to score 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting despite playing through an abdominal injury that just cost him eight games. But the Celtics helped expose a sobering truth about the team that he plays for, one that might never have been true for any other team for which he's played. Not even LeBron James can save the Lakers from themselves.
The 8-9 Lakers are the first James team to be below .500 through 17 games since his rookie 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers. James was obviously absent for many of those games, but the primary value of acquiring Russell Westbrook was to prevent this exact situation. The Lakers were supposed to have two superstars capable of carrying them when James sat. They didn't when he was hurt. They didn't when he needed rest Friday. Of course, they didn't really have a chance to. Frank Vogel's bizarre rotations continue to kneecap the Lakers at every turn.
In James, Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers have three attackers at their best with the ball in their hands. Between the 3:54 and 1:56 marks of the first quarter, all three of them were on the bench while Rajon Rondo ran the offense. With Rondo on the floor this season, the Lakers have scored a paltry 97.2 points per 100 possessions. They predictably lost this stretch by two points. In the second quarter, he played a stretch with both James and Davis on the bench. The Lakers lost that one by another two points. These are inexcusable mistakes. Staggering is standard NBA procedure. It makes sense not to play minutes without at least one of your two best players on the floor. It makes sense to separate players with similar skill sets so you can make the most of what they bring to the table. The Lakers haven't done that.
They're not exactly making the most of their players even in the best alignments, though. Does it really make sense for James, Westbrook and Horton-Tucker to clear out while Avery Bradley works off of a dribble hand-off?
Late in the third quarter, the Lakers played nearly three minutes with James, Davis, and perhaps their three best shooters: Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk. This is a lineup made for the James-Davis pick-and-roll that has been their late-game bread and butter over the past two seasons. The Lakers ran it once. On the other hand, they posted up twice in that span and used 14 total post-ups against the Celtics. No NBA team uses even nine per game, and most are below five. This is, again, common sense. They are an inefficient form of offense that bails out lumbering big men. Five of those post-ups came with Enes Kanter, maybe the worst pick-and-roll defender in the NBA, on the floor. That's the one defensive skill he has. The Lakers didn't tailor their game-plan to their opponent.
They didn't tailor their roster to their superstars either. You know how you drop from No. 1 in defense to No. 18 in a single year? You get rid of all of your best point-of-attack defenders and entrust a 20-year-old with guarding the best opposing scorer. You know how you build a bench in which every player posts a negative plus-minus against your biggest rival? You devote two thirds of your roster spots to players making the minimum salary. You know how you hold yourself to 70 points in the last three quarters against that rival? You introduce a high-usage non-shooter into an ecosystem that relies on low-usage shooters.
Through 17 games, the Lakers have no discernible identity. The defense that won them the 2020 championship is gone. The transition attack Westbrook was supposed to spearhead has underwhelmed as the Lakers ranked second in pace entering Friday, but only eighth in fast-break points and 15th in points per possession in transition. Even when they roll out simplified lineups that facilitate the style that made them successful offensively over the past few years, they just can't help but waste those possessions on the wrong kinds of shots.
James has lifted plenty of underwhelming teams to unfathomable heights. We're talking about someone that made the Finals in nine consecutive healthy seasons. But those teams lacked talent. The Lakers lack something deeper. They lack cohesion. They lack common sense. Where James' worst teams were once overcome by more talented foes, the Lakers are the team with the talent this time. It hasn't mattered. They won't get out of their own way. The Lakers are doing this to themselves, and not even LeBron James can overcome his opponent when his own team is standing in the way.