LOS ANGELES — It’s hard to feel bad for LeBron James. The guy has such a great life sometimes even he can’t believe it, as he’s said on social media.
He was not, however, smiling through Tuesday night’s 133-115 loss to the Clippers.
Even after crossing off the 30th and final team on his to-score-40-points-against list, with 46 points against the Lakers’ Crypto.com Arena co-tenants, James sat on the bench stone-faced and forlorn. Alone with his thoughts, he tuned out the debate a couple of seats away between teammates Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder after their momentum-killing turnover that sparked the Clippers’ 8-0 scoring barrage.
Even after knocking down a career-high nine 3-pointers and moving within 178 points of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, James’ all-black postgame attire proved an appropriate reflection of his dour mood.
46 points and a CAREER-HIGH 9 threes for @KingJames.
He’s the first player age 35 or older to make 9+ threes pic.twitter.com/cSvKqd7q7W
— NBA (@NBA) January 25, 2023
“Over the last couple years since we won the championship, just a lot of accomplishments that have happened in a losing effort,” he said. “So it’s been very kind of difficult to even digest some of them.”
At this point, it’s hard not to feel bad for a guy who is trying so hard and doing so much and taking L’s anyway.
It’s hard to not to feel for the blessed man busting his rear, game after game, continuously pushing the boulder uphill, into the fight, and making all this history – all without it counting nearly often enough in the win column.
“It’s disappointing,” Coach Darvin Ham said after James’ fourth 40-plus-point effort since turning 38 on Dec. 30. “But it’s two-fold, I’m happy for him, but we gotta get better. We give him some help in other areas … he’s playing at an unbelievable level right now, it’s amazing to be able to watch. But having said that, we want to win.”
His teammates on the court can “help” by cutting down on turnovers, sure. By learning from mistakes and continuing to play hard.
His organization can help by making more moves like this week’s trade for 6-foot-8 forward Rui Hachimura. Even if they don’t automatically mean people will start penciling in the Lakers for the NBA Finals, a capable shooter can give them an outside shot at it.
But on Tuesday, before the Lakers fell to 22-26 on a night when James led everyone in the league in scoring, General Manager Rob Pelinka seemed reticent still do anything but swing for the fences when it comes to spending the Lakers’ much-discussed first-round draft picks (2027 in 2029).
Pelinka sounded disinterested in making necessary incremental improvements, moves that could give James and co-star Anthony Davis a puncher’s chance in the playoffs.
“The calculus for the Lakers is to win a championship or not. There’s no in-between or incremental growth,” Pelinka said during Hachimura’s introductory news conference before tip-off against the Clippers.
“As we analyze opportunities, we have to do it through that lens. If there’s an opportunity to get all the way at the end and win a championship, there’s no resource we’ll hold onto if we feel like that’s there. But at the same time, the completely unwise thing to do would be to shoot a bullet early and not have it later when you have a better championship move to make.”
Does that mean the Lakers won’t take aim at, say, Bojan Bogdanovic, the 6-7 Detroit Pistons forward who isn’t a glittering All-Star but is shooting 42.3% from 3-point range this season? Or someone like him who would help the Lakers keep pace with teams like the Clippers, a wing-heavy wrecking crew that’s well-stocked with dependable distance shooters who shot 19 for 38 (50%) from 3-point range on Tuesday – when Lakers not named LeBron went 7 for 26 from deep.
Do Pelinka’s comments spell out Lakers fans’ fears? Do they mean James shouldn’t expect the team to spend those picks to get a player with more size than their main guards who were available Tuesday – Russell Westbrook (6-3), Patrick Beverley (6-1) and Schroder (6-1) – if they hope to size up with ball-handlers like the Clippers’ lengthy lineup?
After the Clippers’ Paul George drained a shot over Beverley in the second half on Tuesday, TNT’s Stan Van Gundy noted, probably without meaning to invoke the contemporary trash talk line: “You can’t play the defense any tougher than that, he’s just too small.”
James knows this. Lakers fans know this.
But just like he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate tying one of Michael Jordan’s records with his third 45-plus-point game at 38 or older, James hasn’t been in the mood to tune into any debates over roster construction, either. Not overtly. He’s saving that energy for the immense task in front of him on the court.
So when he was asked what he made of Pelinka’s comments, James was succinct on the topic, as usual: “Rob is going to do his job. That’s his job. My job is to be on the floor and make sure my guys are locked in and ready to go.”
While the Lakers’ front office saves up for “the better championship move” they’re air-balling the shot in front of them. They have LeBron and A.D., the pillars of a championship team three seasons ago.
With the right personnel beside them this season, the opportunity could be there again. But Pelinka and the Lakers can’t overanalyze things.