It was often said early in his career that LeBron James could lead virtually any supporting cast to 50 wins. The data backed up that assertion. He won 66 games with Mo Williams as his best teammate, after all. He reached the NBA Finals with Larry Hughes as his highest-scoring teammate and were it not for J.R. Smith, might have won a road Finals game against the greatest roster ever assembled with only a single teammate (Kevin Love) scoring in double figures. LeBron’s bad-team credentials are certified.
But King James has largely ceded his throne this season to perhaps his first-ever superior teammate. When the Lakers started 2-10, it was Anthony Davis that lifted them back into the playoff race. He has outscored, out-rebounded and out-blocked James thus far this season, and he’s done so on significantly more efficient shooting. The Lakers have been 11 points stronger per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor than without him, finally grabbing the plus-minus torch from James after years of disappointing bench lineups played a part in producing the Russell Westbrook trade.
That 11-point net rating differential is illustrative of the team’s shifting priorities. This is no longer a James-centric offense. The game runs through Anthony Davis now. Or at least, it did. Davis is expected to miss at least a month with a right foot injury. His history suggests that it could be longer. And suddenly, James, the rising tide that has spent two decades raising all ships, is back in his usual position atop the pecking order.
This could prove problematic for the simplest of reasons: James is 37. This is his 20th NBA season. He’s suffered as many injuries over the past few years as Davis. He handed control of the Lakers to his teammate by design. It’s not clear whether or not he even can be the sort of singular force he was at his peak anymore. The numbers suggest that he can’t.
Look at virtually any measure of individual shot-creation and James is declining significantly. After scoring almost seven points per game in pick-and-roll during the Lakers’ 2020 championship run, he’s down to four this season. He’s lost a point per game in isolation in that time. His dwindling rim attempts are boosted largely in transition, as James ranks second in the NBA in fast-break points per game, but has seen his drives per game dip from above 14 in 2020 to below eight this season. His diminishing ability to create advantages is trickling down to his teammates. He is averaging 6.3 assists per game, relatively low compared to his career average of 7.3.
James is still among the best players in the NBA, of course, He’s just been able to make up for his reasonable age-related decline in other areas. He’s shooting more 3-pointers. He’s scoring more as a cutter. He’s taken on more roll-man duties in pick-and-roll. These are worthwhile traits for the healthy Lakers. They’re luxuries for the Lakers that exist today. With Davis gone, the Lakers have almost 70 touches per game that need to be replaced. James will surely take the brunt of them.
After all, this roster is the epitome of every “LeBron James can do X with any roster in basketball” quip. The struggle to replace Davis is going to largely boil down to minimum-salary players. The Lakers have nine of them, including all three possible Davis replacements in Thomas Bryant, Damian Jones and Wenyen Gabriel. Key guards Austin Reaves and Dennis Schroder qualify as well, and while Lonnie Walker IV came for the mid-level exception, he was hardly a hot commodity before landing in Los Angeles. Westbrook may be a former MVP, but there’s only so much he can do coming off of the bench.
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All of this points back to James. The Lakers have given him a flawed roster, and they aren’t going to do much to improve it until he proves to them that he deserves it. It’s a sensible approach, in theory. The Lakers have been hesitant to attach first-round picks in trades even with James and Davis healthy. Without Davis, this season is in jeopardy.
The Lakers are already 12-16. They didn’t have room to lose games as it was. The post-Davis reality is going to force losses onto them. If the Lakers slip far enough down the standings, the front office is going to abandon win-now talks altogether. It won’t matter how healthy Davis is in February if the Lakers are 10 games below .500.
That places the onus on James to not only save his own season, but the one Davis is having as well. It’s a burden no player has ever absorbed in his 20th season, yet it feels almost tame by LeBron’s standards. He doesn’t need to lead a poor roster to 50 wins. He just needs to keep one afloat long enough for his best teammate to make it back to the court in one piece. If he can no longer do that? Then this season was doomed from the start anyway.