What little revelry LeBron James incurred after surpassing Michael Jordan in career points on Wednesday was cut short, as the Los Angeles Lakers announced that they had agreed to place the three-time NBA champion on a minutes restriction for the remainder of the season.
The shock factor of the decision is only amplified by James’ career rear-view mirror. Just last season he played through, in his words, “a broken hand,” in the NBA Finals, despite entering the contest with little more than a passing chance at victory.
His diagnosis was further bolstered by his playing a full 82-game season for the first time in professional career. James, who had previously given indication of his super human ability, was once again achieving feats that made Clark Kent look like Homer Simpson.
The conclusion that James and the Lakers would be better off with No. 23 spending less time on the court is the biggest admission of mismanagement since the 2004 team imploded, but it might also be the first successful face-saving move of Lakers President Magic Johnson’s career.
When James exited during the third quarter of the Lakers’ Christmas Night game with the Golden State Warriors, he left behind a rewritten version of the team’s 2018-19 season recap. His groin injury added up to 17 missed contests, 11 of which ended in losses for Los Angeles. The Lakers plummeted to 26th in offensive rating while dropping potential playoff meetups against the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Warriors.
The Lakers’ despair seemed to end with James’ return to the lineup on Jan. 31. He nearly dropped a triple-double against the Los Angeles Clippers—24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists—as the Lakers upended their intracity rivals.
But the good times came to a halt. James sat out in the Lakers’ loss to the Warriors to start the month of February. And while he’s played in every contest since, the results haven’t been optimistic. Los Angeles is 3-9 with James back in the rotation, and nobody seems happy about it. Not Laker—read Kobe—fans, not the organization, James’ teammates, or James himself.
Whether it’s a lack of feeling 100 percent healthy, apathy or a mix of the two, the future hall of famer has been off his game. His stat lines look fine—in the last 15 games James is eighth in the NBA in points per game (26.5) and first in assists—but his body language tells a different story.
Deciding to leave a smaller imprint on the Lakers train wreck of a season, then, is a smarter decision than it initially lets on.
The NBA in 2018-19 has been ripe with hyper-affluent temper tantrums. Recently, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving have made clear that their desires and that of their respective teams weren’t aligned, and the ensuing fallout has been nuclear. Davis is stranded somewhere in the Bayou while Irving has transitioned to an existence in which the city of Boston doesn’t exist. And of course, we can’t forget about the Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler sagas earlier this season.
Instead, with James and the Lakers reaching a mutually beneficial agreement—one without sneak disses in press conferences or tweets loaded with subtext—both sides are setting a new precedent for player-team relations. Even at his worst, James stands as a bastion of NBA diplomacy. Maybe his decision to bargain away from the cameras will inspire a trend that leads star players away from self-sabotage and non-newsworthy news coverage.
What’s more, is that the Lakers can finally loosen their grip on their playoff fever dreams. With James on the court, original intentions be damned, the Lakers were fighting for a playoff spot. His productivity would be wasted on anything less than a post-season berth.
Owning up to a busted season quells the anxiety of all those involved. Fans can finally stop booing James harder than they cheer Alex Caruso. Management can focus on drafting a concrete plan for July rather than organizing carefully timed statements about the team’s legitimacy. (Sure, Luke Walton is still on the hot seat, but somebody has to take the blame for this, right?)
In the last month of the regular season, the Lakers can hopefully revert to the highs of the pre-James era. Remember when the Staples Center erupted at the sight of D’Angelo Russell’s “Ice in my Veins” shot? Or when Larry Nance Jr. posterized Kevin Durant? No, those weren’t all time Laker moments, but they eased the constant reminder that Kobe was a shell of his former self and the was eons away from contention.
For now, Lakers should enjoy the time out of the limelight while they can, because come July’s free agency period, Los Angeles will be the city that never sleeps.