After the Lakers lost to a 26-34 Pelicans team that was playing without Anthony Davis on Saturday, LeBron James appeared to call out some of his teammates for lacking the proper “sense of urgency.” Then Monday brought another dreadful defeat, this time to the previously 23-38 Grizzlies, followed by James declaring that if any of the Lakers were “allowing distractions to affect the way you play, this is the wrong franchise to be a part of.”
The four-time MVP, in his first season in Los Angeles after going to eight straight NBA Finals with the Heat and Cavaliers, is in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. While the Lakers’ struggles can largely be pinned on a flawed and injured supporting cast, there is a growing sense that James can only blame his teammates so much before the finger points back at his leadership.
Before the Lakers took the court in Memphis and fell to 29-31, good (or not so good) for a 10th-place tie in the Western Conference, a story by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus contained criticism of James’s lackadaisical defense and presumed role in encouraging the New Orleans star to demand a trade. That led to the Lakers reportedly dangling every player not named LeBron in a futile quest to land Davis before the NBA’s trade deadline earlier this month, which only served to increase tensions in Los Angeles.
“He killed the [Lakers’] chemistry,” an anonymous NBA executive said of James to Pincus. “He shouldn’t have been so public about it. Even during the all-star draft, he laughed about [wanting Davis to be his teammate].”
The questions about James’s relationship with Davis, and possible tampering, are not about to go away either, given that Davis is set to appear on James’s HBO show, “The Shop,” on Friday. Another guest will be the rapper 2 Chainz, who was shown on Monday spending time with James earlier in the month in a recording studio on a night before the four-time MVP would sit out a game against the Warriors for what Lakers Coach Luke Walton described as “load management.”
The post by Complex Music spurred plenty of replies that wryly noted some of James’s recent comments, including that his intensity for the upcoming playoff race had been “activated.” On Saturday, after the defeat in New Orleans, he told reporters, “It kind of looks that way at times, that sometimes we feel like we’re afraid to be uncomfortable and kind of get out of our comfort zone and kind of, you know, have that sense of urgency from the jump, and not be afraid to actually go out and fail, to succeed.”
“It’s how you approach the game every day,” James added at the time. “It’s how you think the game every day. It’s how you play the game. It’s how you prepare for the game, and that’s not even, like, when you get to the arena. That’s, like, way before that. Basketball — is that the most important thing? Is this the most important thing in your life at this time?
“If you give it all, to that game, and then if you feel like you put it all into it, then you have nothing to look back on, you’re able to do other things. But if you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else.”
Following Monday’s 110-105 loss to the Grizzlies, in which James notched a triple-double, some still wondered if he had given it his all and where his focus was in the late stages. He allowed a crucial, wide-open three-pointer by sagging far back into the lane, then was called for a charge before shooting an air ball on a three-point attempt of his own.
“LeBron rarely exerts himself beyond a casual jog in transition defense and disregards spot-up shooters in most half-court situations, leaving them wide open,” Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room said to Bleacher Report before the game. “His defensive game these days resembles a disinterested center rather than the high-end wing defender that he once was.”
Despite the damaging loss, Walton said he was “very pleased with the effort and the togetherness of our group.” James echoed the silver-lining theme, saying his team needed “just to stay positive and keep knocking on the door.”
“I feel like if we play like we did [in Memphis], then we’ve got to continue that consistent effort,” he added, “to get us over this hump while we make this push.”
A question about whether constant reminders of the need to make a playoff push were creating a “distraction” from Los Angeles’s attention to in-game execution, though, elicited what some saw as an eyebrow-raising response from James. After his line about the Lakers being the “wrong franchise to be a part of” for those inclined to be affected by distractions, he said, “Like, seriously, if you’re distracted by playoff pushes, out of all the stuff that’s been talked about this year, nah. Just come and do your job.”
“We do our job at a high level, and that’s not a distraction, that’s what you want,” James continued. “That’s what you want every game. You want to feel like you’re fighting for something.”
There was some debate online about which Lakers player(s) might have been the subject of those remarks, if any, or even if what he said was particularly controversial. But many felt that James himself was at fault for at least some of the distractions, or as he put it, “all the stuff that’s been talked about this year.”
“James is all but suggesting that his teammates, whom the team dangled in very public trade talks for Anthony Davis, which were orchestrated by LeBron’s agent and friend, aren’t built for the scrutiny that LeBron himself has dealt with since high school,” wrote Erik García Gundersen of Lakers Wire. “Also, which teammates is he talking about? … Perhaps James is trying to wake up the other veterans by calling them out in passive aggressive ways, but by not being clear in his criticism he’s not doing them any favors.”
“The Lakers are where they are, and they’re either going to get past whatever distractions or issues are ailing them, or this is going to be a very different team next year,” Anthony Irwin of Silver Screen & Roll wrote Monday, “and one whose leadership has come into question.”
Of course, all of this unhappy talk is nothing a string of victories couldn’t quell. But by appearing to call out his teammates’ resolve and focus, James has set himself up for criticism, all the more so when he fails to make plays that lead his Lakers to those much-needed wins.
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