LOS ANGELES — Fair or not, there's an impression that when a team acquires LeBron James, it is getting a de facto head coach and general manager.
Per ESPN's Brian Windhorst: "When James is running the point, he rarely looks toward the bench to receive play-calls from coach Luke Walton. Even when he sees them, the scouts say, he ignores them and runs the play he prefers."
When the Los Angeles Lakers needed a backup center behind JaVale McGee, a league source told ESPN's Dave McMenamin that James Jones, the Phoenix Suns' interim GM, "did LeBron a solid" in buying out Tyson Chandler.
Jones and James are longtime friends and winners of multiple championships together. Since the Lakers added Chandler on Nov. 6, they've had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Now Joe Vardon of The Athletic reports that "James would like to get Carmelo Anthony to Los Angeles." ESPN's Ramona Shelburne confirmed that, adding that James hasn't asked team executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka about it. Anthony is currently under contract with the Houston Rockets, but GM Daryl Morey released a statement in mid-November that the team "will be parting ways" with the 10-time All-Star.
It's unclear how much of the James-as-NBA-powerbroker mythos is real. Obviously, he's a significant figure on the court. His impact is already being felt by the Lakers, who, at 15-9, have climbed to fifth place in the Western Conference after a 2-5 start. Last season, the Lakers didn't get their 15th victory until Jan. 13.
Is James coaching the Lakers? Of course not. The team is executing Walton's blueprint—at least some of the time—by defending, running and sharing the ball. But James is one of the most dominant players the NBA has ever seen. He's going to control games, and when he's on fire, Walton's job is to get out of the way.
Johnson took exception to the claim that James isn't listening to Walton.
"Brian [Windhorst] got it wrong," Johnson said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. "We're the Lakers. People are going to be talking about us, but that's not how it's going right now."
Johnson went on to detail how James is often playing without the ball, a virtue James has extolled in the Lakers' locker room. He's enjoyed playing with multiple playmakers like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo. His opponents have noticed, including DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs, who saw James tear up his squad for 20 fourth-quarter points Wednesday in a 121-113 Lakers victory.
"He handled the ball a lot in Cleveland and Miami. Now he's trying to get off the ball, finding his teammates, playing a lot faster in transition," DeRozan said. "Then when it's crunch time, you know who the ball goes to. A few things have changed, but late in the game, it's still the same. It's still the same LeBron."
The same James who destroyed the Toronto Raptors every year, leading to Dwane Casey's firing after a 2017-18 season for which he was named Coach of the Year—he's now finding success with the Detroit Pistons—and DeRozan's exile to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are still a work-in-progress, losing their first two games against the Spurs. At times throughout the season, the young Lakers have found themselves standing around late in games, spectating. James has often ended up on an island, launching step-back threes to no avail.
The win over San Antonio represented the ideal for the Lakers, with every player involved and James attacking the basket like the unstoppable force he's always been.
The Lakers do have concerns about being overly reliant on James, and even Kobe Bryant spoke out at a Lakers All-Access event Monday.
"That's not the recipe to win a championship, by no means, but it is a recipe to keep your head above water," Bryant said, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. Johnson made similar comments on the SiriusXM broadcast.
Note the comment from former UCLA swingman Kristaan Johnson. Cleveland did pretty well in its four straight battles against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, including its one title, given the injuries and roster turnover.
James said he understood the logic behind their comments.
Were his 42 points against the Spurs counterproductive? Of course not. The Lakers had lost Ingram to a sprained ankle five minutes into the game, and Josh Hart struggled to stay on the court with foul trouble.
Kyle Kuzma, Ball and Hart each made huge plays down the stretch.
They don't win without James' heroics, but they also don't get there without Ball's 14 points and nine assists, or Kuzma's 22 points and nine rebounds, or Hart's perfectly timed six points via a pair of three-pointers that buried San Antonio.
James has been tremendous this season, averaging 28.4 points per game, his highest mark since 2009-10. He's also averaging 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists, all in a career-low 34.8 minutes per game.
The notion that James would have to completely carry the young Lakers every night to get any traction in the West has yet to manifest. He's only hit the 40-minute mark three times in 24 games.
But James can't do it alone, just as Bryant needed Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Robert Horry, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and many others to win his five titles. The Lakers don't have the established veterans to support James, but they do have a lot of young, talented prospects.
With their age comes a lack of consistency. Will they emerge as James' costars en route to an NBA title, or will they be jettisoned along the way should the Lakers pursue other stars like Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant? James signed a four-year contract, but he'll turn 34 later this month. His championship window will only be open so long.
The NBA has few true superstars, and James is arguably the biggest. That Johnson was able to land him in Los Angeles, especially so early in his tenure as a front-office executive, was remarkable, but that will only get the franchise so far.
Davis, who is under contract for at least another season with the New Orleans Pelicans, recently joined James' agent Rich Paul with Klutch Sports. If James has the GM power so many ascribe to him, perhaps he's already taken the steps to recruit the league's top big man, though good luck getting the Pelicans to part with their best player.
Do fellow All-Stars even want to join up with James? B/R's Ric Bucher suggested otherwise, with Durant calling the media environment around James "toxic." Along with Johnson and Pelinka, James will need to do some serious recruiting with the max salary-cap space the Lakers have to offer in July.
Even with the current roster flaws, Los Angeles is just a single game behind the Golden State Warriors (17-9). It's easy to look ahead and ignore what the team is putting on the floor nightly, and though the Lakers are far from a finished product, they are gradually learning how to win together consistently.
If James was close to losing his patience in October, the Lakers' 10-4 November has cooled him off. No, he's not coaching the team. He's not negotiating deals on behalf of Johnson and Pelinka, but he wields significant power.
That only goes so far. As Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey noted, "LeBron doesn't get to pick his teammates."
Maybe. They might not get Damian Lillard out of Portland. Durant's comments might suggest Los Angeles is out of the running for his services, but don't discount James' influence both on the court and behind the scenes.