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HOW LONG BEFORE LEBRON, ALREADY IN “HATE” MODE, SEEKS A TRADE?
In his murky career twilight, James won’t tolerate another ugly season in Los Angeles — and if his past is prologue, he’ll seek a new destination rather than remain entangled in more Lakers chaos
This is the hate-life point where LeBron James seeks an escape hatch. We’ve seen it every time his career is blocked by impenetrable barriers. He ripped away his jersey in Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach, where he won twice until he couldn’t win again, then returned home for the impossible northeast-Ohio sports title, before Hollywood beckoned and he won once in a pandemic bubble that still doesn’t feel real.
Now, in his 20th NBA season, he sees a wretchedly constructed Lakers roster — very much his doing, very much his fault — and now embarks on a road trip with an 0-3 team that could return home 0-5 and not win until November. If that happens, in a Western Conference stocked with eight or nine better teams, King James will have no use for another ugly season.
Oh, he could focus on breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time career scoring record, which he calls “the most sought-after record in the NBA,” which isn’t true, as the late Bill Russell would dispute with his record 11 championships. After which James could retire and keep doing those heavy-rotation iPhone 14 Pro ads, where he declares, “My work here is done! Everyone gets the best deal on every iPhone!” He could focus on lobbying commissioner Adam Silver for ownership of a Las Vegas expansion team. He could keep cracking wise and getting his beard trimmed on his HBO show, “The Shop.”
But quitting isn’t how LeBron rolls when the basketball gods say he’s finished making the playoffs, let alone winning championships. This is where he acts entitled and defiant and looks for a prison break, even if he just signed a two-year extension in Los Angeles and said, “I’m committed to this franchise for as long as my career, my contract years.” He is ineligible to be traded this season, because the second extension year exceeded a 5-percent raise, but the wheels can be set in motion for 2023. He’s still one of the planet’s five leading players, even as he nears 38. He can’t stand looking at the Golden State Warriors, who are forming an addendum to a dynasty by developing a new wave of talent, and realizing Steph Curry still could win six or seven rings and trump the totality of James’ impact on the game. He can’t stand seeing the Cleveland Cavaliers, his two-time former team, building a young nucleus and gunning for Eastern Conference contention. Nor can he fathom that the Lakers — thanks to the feeble and fading Russell Westbrook, whom James insisted on acquiring last season when the more sensible DeMar DeRozan was ready to bring his All-Star skills — are prone to late-game collapses in a quagmire of historic three-point futility, ghastly shot selection, porous rebounding and a general lack of cohesion and purpose under first-year coach Darvin Ham.
“I don’t like to lose. I hate to lose at anything. I don’t care what happens throughout the course of my season or throughout the course of my career, I hate to lose,” James bristled Sunday after the Lakers gagged a seven-point lead with 1:56 left and lost to Portland.
“Right now, you got a shitty mood. But I’ll leave my frustration and what I have here. Once I drive out the tunnel, I’m going to leave it here. That’s it.”
Why oh why would he think the stench won’t linger for weeks or months in Crypto.com Arena? Eventually, the owner and front-office boss who can’t say no to James and buddy/agent Rich Paul — Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka — will find a taker for Westbrook’s expiring contract and maybe land some sort of perimeter shooter, the shotmaker the Lakers so woefully lack. As James said after an opening-night loss to the Warriors and Curry’s three-point revolution, “We’re not a team constructed of great shooting. That’s just what the truth of the matter is. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.” That’s because James pushed to dispatch two such lasers, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, in the Westbrook trade. There’s a better chance of Russ blowing kisses to the home crowd — which peppers him with crude insults such as “You f—ing suck,” prompting him to foolishly engage one taunter — than finding a modicum of shooting success as long as he’s stuck in L.A.
By the time the front office sends him away, it likely will be much too late. And more losing will prompt James, if his past is prologue, to start plotting his departure in the new year. Should the Lakers continue to slog in the Western dregs, with a best-case scenario of a play-in game, Buss and Pelinka might realize a place in the Victor Wembanyama Tanking Circus is a better long-term plan. And even that is more complicated than it should be, as the Lakers would have to acquire a first-round 2023 pick from a low-rung team in a multi-team deal. To tank for multiple seasons, the Lakers would trade James and Anthony Davis for what they don’t have now: a boatload of top draft picks and young pieces. It isn’t in the franchise’s three-documentaries-at-once DNA, I know, to quit on a season at the trade deadline. But no one is in the mood to lose 49 games again, most of all James. We’re still waiting on the inevitable Davis injury. We’re still waiting to see if Ham is worthy of the gig. Even if they acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner from Indiana, which would mean relinquishing one or two of their remaining first-round picks (in 2027 and 2029) this decade, or Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley from Utah, or Josh Richardson from San Antonio, none of those desperation maneuvers elevates the Lakers into contention. Their first-round pick probably isn’t in the Wembanyama picture because, naturally, New Orleans has the right to swap picks if the Lakers have a worse record; if the Pelicans are playoff-bound, as expected, the Lakers would own a non-lottery pick. Yep, Pelinka flops again.
As Stephen A. Smith shrieked on ESPN, LeBron and the Lakers already are on the brink of “disaster.” James doesn’t do disasters. Neither do the Lakers. At some grotesque point, they could be ready to move on from each other. LeBron and Paul will initiate the movement. Jeanie and Pelinka will thank the heavens.
Where would he go? There aren’t as many options as you think. But one is in Dallas, where Mark Cuban dreams of pairing LeBron with Luka Doncic. Cuban would say yes to every James desire, including a future collaboration with son Bronny. Memphis might make everyone but Ja Morant available in a deal. Would Pat Riley, pushing 80 in Miami, consider running back LeBron as the Heat stagnate? We could play LeBron roulette all day, but wherever he’d go, that option would give him a considerably better chance next spring than staying in The Crypt.
If Westbrook isn’t traded soon — say, today — his presence will poison another season. Have you ever seen an elite player, once a Hall of Fame lock, free-fall so quickly? He can’t make a shot that isn’t a layup, and he sometimes botches the layups, too. Last Thursday, he missed all 11 of his shots. Sunday, he missed 11 of 15. He’s shooting 28.9 percent from the field and an incomprehensible 8.3 percent from beyond the three-point arc. With a comfortable lead at home, Ham erred in sending Westbrook into the game with 4:42 left. The Trail Blazers, no longer West contenders themselves, went on a 16-7 run. Westbrook’s career may have hit rock bottom in the final 30 seconds, when the Blazers disrespectfully sagged off him, allowing him to take a too-quick, 16-foot jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock.
Or “Westbrick,” as the fans say. Ham benched him, but Damian Lillard and the Blazers seized their opening, and James missed a game-tying jumper in a 106-104 loss.
Facial expressions alone indicate Westbrook doesn’t want to be there. James doesn’t want him there. But a week into the season, it won’t be easy to ship him away, as teams remain in self-assessment mode. Know how sad this mess has become? His former Oklahoma City teammate, L.A. Clippers star Paul George, says it’s time to save Russ and separate him from the team down the hallway. Imagine that. The Clippers are the local franchise with the championship opportunity thanks to none other than LeBron, who wanted Westbrook and not DeRozan. And without one banner in the rafters, the orphans are dissecting the institution with 17 banners.
“Quite frankly it’s not the team that’s geared for him, with the roster that they have,” George told ESPN. “It’s got to work both ways. He was very easily a 30-10-10 guy when he had the keys to the team. You can’t forget about that. … Honestly, I don’t get the shade or the hate or the stuff that’s thrown at him. He’s one of the best players to ever play this game. It’s hard when you’ve got the pressure they’re putting on him here.”
They don’t trust Russ with the keys. Who would at this point? With his trademark deflection tactics, James scolded the media for their Westbrook emphasis only three questions into his post-game interview Sunday. Wasn’t it his way of indirectly pointing out how awful Westbrook has been? “I feel like this is an interview of trying to set me up to say something. I can tell that you guys are in the whole ‘Russell Westbrook category’ right now,” he said. “You guys can write about Russ and all the things you want to try to talk about Russ, but I’m not up here to do that. I won’t do it. I’ve said it over and over. … That’s not who I am.”
It would help if LeBron came out and owned his failed attempt to play general manager. That won’t happen. He’s too busy thinking of a way out of this madness. The mess is what he deserves, if any deep dive of his career is honest and thorough. He’s the one who valued individual empowerment over the continuity of staying with one team, as Michael Jordan did. Again, here is where he’s shamed in any MJ debate. Jordan needed only 13 seasons to win six titles, all in Chicago, before playing out two regrettable spite-the-Bulls seasons in Washington. In 20 seasons, James has won four titles with three franchises, a chain interrupted multiple times. When these harsh truths are disseminated, James tends to seethe and ponder a new way out. Hey, he’ll still have his Beverly Hills mansion. He can keep making movies. Surely, Silver will grease political skids for his team ownership in Vegas, with a franchise called — what else? — the James Gang.
But if he has only two seasons left beyond this one, he’ll be damned if he goes out a terminal loser. I live in L.A., and there’s no love attached to his pursuit of Kareem’s scoring record. Abdul-Jabbar was a Lakers legend; LeBron is a mercenary rental. When James refused to publicly encourage NBA players to seek COVID vaccines, Abdul-Jabbar criticized him in an opinion piece: “While LeBron is a necessary and dynamic voice critical of police brutality against the Black community, he needs to be the same necessary and dynamic advocate with vaccines, which could save thousands of Black lives right now.”
If nothing else this season, LeBron chasing Kareem should be a Lakers love-in. “No thoughts, no relationship,” James said of Abdul-Jabbar.
Still mourning Kobe Bryant’s death, still of the belief that Magic Johnson and Jerry West and a dozen others are the real purple-and-gold heroes, L.A. wouldn’t care if LeBron James was traded in February with the Lakers seven games under .500. Nor would he care what L.A. thought.
Hear the familiar door open. That’s the escape hatch.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.