Here we go, LeBron. It’s déjà vu all over again.
In the Los Angeles Lakers‘ tumultuous and precipitous drop the past couple months, LeBron James has reverted to the same self-denial, insult-your-intelligence, anyone-to-blame-but-him playbook he employed to such ill effect a decade ago when he joined the Miami Heat with those famous words about taking his talents to South Beach.
His current dilemma went from bad to worse over the weekend, with L.A. dropping games to the Clippers and Pelicans, losses to mediocre-at-best teams that conjured the idea of the Lakers flirting with not even making the play-in games.
Amid this struggle — one borne out of LeBron’s insistence last offseason in having Russell Westbrook — the media reporting and not-so-subtle LeBron signs over the past week have included:
- LeBron letting everyone know he’d be open to playing again for Cleveland. Which, you know, would mean leaving L.A.
- Reports LeBron was unhappy with the lack of moves at the trade deadline by the Lakers front office — a frustration that ignored the fact there was little to be done given Westbrook’s massive contact and massively disappointing on-court reality.
- LeBron praising Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, a prelude to a report that LeBron, in fact, wanted Presti to replace Lakers GM Rob Pelinka. Which, you know, doesn’t exactly suggest everything is rainbows and puppy dogs in LeBron land.
This went over so poorly, his agent Rich Paul had to backpedal a few days ago by letting it be known, along with Lakers brass, that there are no hard feelings, everything is great, everyone is on the same page.
Just the kind of nothing-to-see-here public pronouncement that means there’s much to be seen here indeed.
So what did LeBron do this weekend to follow up? He transitioned from lashing out at Pelinka for what was actually LeBron’s fault, to lashing out at the media for what was — you guessed it — also LeBron’s doing.
“I don’t understand how some of my comments over the [All-Star] weekend was taken to a whole different area of, ‘Could I see myself retiring as a Cavalier?'” he said. “I never said I would see myself playing in a Cavaliers uniform.”
There was more:
“You guys take some of my words and twist them into different places where they shouldn’t go.”
Sure, LeBron. You nailed it.
Thing is, we’ve been here before, and that’s the real worry. LeBron’s need this season to whip up drama, and then assume an aggressively defensive posture when that drama spirals out of his control, is way too similar to his approach his first year in Miami, which I covered as a beat columnist.
That whole thing didn’t end well. And neither will this season — and his next one in L.A. — if he doesn’t apply the lessons of 2010-11 to 2022.
Put it this way: Madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. So here’s some advice to impart some sanity on this careening Lakers organization and the leader who’s at its wobbly lead.
LeBron is an all-time great — almost the best ever — and, as far as any of us can really tell from a distance, a good guy. I personally like him. So this advice comes from a place of genuineness rather than snark.
LeBron James, starting now, needs to:
1. Accept responsibility. This mess is of LeBron’s making, not Pelinka’s, not the media’s, not even Westbrook’s, despite his atrocious play. LeBron may claim he isn’t a shadow GM, but remember before the trade last summer that brought Russ to L.A. that LeBron had a meeting weeks earlier to hash out how the Anthony Davis-LeBron-Westbrook partnership would work.
As in: He set it up before it happened. Like, well, a GM.
He made his call. It didn’t work. Accept it.
2. Settle things on the court, not with Machiavellian off-court maneuvers. Stop trying to play master media manipulator. Stop taking your frustration out on others who bent, inevitably, to your will. Stop being mad that people — Lakers, and media members — take you seriously. Stop with all the off-court drama. Take it to the court. You made this bed. Go play as well as you can in it.
3. Don’t insult our intelligence. Those surrounded by yes-men and yes-women can often lose track of the fact that we, the public in general, are mostly not stupid. We can hear the contradictions, see through the would-be sneakiness and tend to react accordingly. People often dislike politicians because they’re full of it and ask us to pretend they’re not. Avoid this trap.
All of these things — the machinations, the blame, the need to point a finger elsewhere to avoid looking in a mirror — sow drama and discord. Maybe LeBron James can handle that weight without on-court impact — he couldn’t in 2011 — but most his teammates won’t be able to. The gravitational pull of LeBron James is too strong. The physics of being in his orbit, for good and bad, are astounding and brutal to try and fight.
King James? All good.
Drama-king James? Much less effective.
In Miami, LeBron was like a superhero who hadn’t mastered his gifts. He had powers, sure, amazing ones, but every time he tried to use them he unleashed more than he and those around him could handle. It’s been a decade, but he’s making those mistakes again, because like that first year in Miami, LeBron has bitten off more than he can chew.
Then, it was the pressure and angst of how he left Cleveland how the world responded. Now, it’s the pressure and angst of his NBA career nearing an end and the mistake he made in entrusting precious final seasons to Russell Westbrook as a teammate.
This Lakers season is unlikely to end well, and next year looks just as dire.
But LeBron has proven people like me wrong before. To do that again, he’s going to have to apply the same lesson he once told me he learned after that 2011 Finals collapse.
To forget about all the off-court stuff, and get on — come what may — with the thing he’s extraordinary at: The basketball.