LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is still one of the best basketball players in the world, but as the Los Angeles Lakers (29-30) struggle to climb into the top eight of the Western Conference, he needs to take some responsibility for the team's shortcomings.
James recently said he has "activated" his playoff mode, but the Lakers just lost to the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans, even though Anthony Davis was sitting out to "rest."
If James and the Lakers want to make the postseason, they can't afford to drop many more games. They currently sit behind the San Antonio Spurs (33-28), Los Angeles Clippers (33-28) and Sacramento Kings (31-28). The Lakers need to leapfrog two teams for a playoff berth, and that's not going to happen with losses to struggling franchises like the Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks.
James seemed to place some of the blame on his teammates following the New Orleans setback.
"When you've never been there or know what it takes [to win at a high level], sometimes you're afraid to get uncomfortable. You've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," James said of his squad, noting that he knew when he came to Los Angeles it would take some time for the team's young players to learn.
He added: "It's how you approach the game every day. 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. Is basketball, is that the most important thing, why we're doing this. Is this the most important thing in your life at this time?"
It's difficult to question James, based on his track record of advancing to the NBA Finals eight years running (nine overall) and three titles. But the Lakers are primarily struggling on the defensive side of the ball, and James hasn't seemed engaged of late.
"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. "His defensive game these days resembles a disinterested center rather than the high-end wing defender that he once was."
James is still putting up tremendous numbers; his 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.4 assists since he returned from injury are outstanding. He may not be the over-arching problem holding the Lakers back—the team is flawed in many ways—but James needs to be a bigger part of the solution. He needs to raise his effort defensively.
"He's been doing that all year," another video analyst said. "He's been [coasting on defense] for a few years now."
Per NBA.com, in 165 of James' 263 minutes since his return (62.7 percent), the Lakers have a negative net rating. The team's current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions over four games. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9.
If James is questioning his teammates, does that include Ingram, who is playing some of the best, most consistent basketball of his career (averaging 20.9 points a game over his last 13)?
If anyone deserves criticism, it's Rajon Rondo, who has 14 turnovers over the past three games, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range in February (a slight improvement over January's 31.7 percent). James' inexperienced teammates may not be as culpable as others.
One undeniable factor is Lonzo Ball's absence, as he's still sidelined with a sprained ankle suffered Jan. 19. Ball is a difference-maker defensively for the Lakers, and while he's an inconsistent scorer, he's an important part of the team's offense.
"It sucks that my injury happened and [Ball's] injury happened and so many of our injuries happened," James said. "I'm so huge on, like, chemistry and camaraderie throughout the course of the season. ... The injuries have taken a toll on our team."
That's not wrong, but it also doesn't represent the entire picture.
Fair or not, James is closely associated with his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. The impression around the league is that the duo has more of a partnership than the typical player/agent relationship. It was Paul who publicly demanded a trade on behalf of Davis, pushing the Pelicans to send him to the Lakers before the deadline—but in a sense, it was also James.
"He killed the [Lakers'] chemistry," one NBA executive said. "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 gambit for Davis didn't work. It still may over the summer, but in the meantime, it torpedoed L.A.'s chemistry and camaraderie (exemplified by the 136 points given up to the Indiana Pacers and 143 to the 76ers soon after).
Some of that is on team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who didn't denounce the many rumors that bounced around leading up to the deadline. Lying about such things is all but customary in the NBA. Give some plausible deniability in case a deal doesn't go through; otherwise, a team's spirit can easily be crushed.
James clearly covets another star, and that's not a bad thing. It's just become evident to many of his teammates that they are probably the next sacrifice, like Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson before them.
A cohesive basketball team is built on a foundation of trust. That may be lost in Los Angeles for the rest of the season. The best way for James to make an impact is to raise his intensity on defense. Instead of questioning his teammates' dedication, show that he's dedicated on both ends of the court.
The Lakers are only two losses behind the three teams they're chasing. They still play the Clippers twice and the Kings once. Only the Spurs have locked in the tiebreaker over the Lakers.
Making the playoffs is a realistic goal. Even climbing to the seventh seed to avoid the Golden State Warriors in the first round is within reach, but the Lakers need James to dazzle not only offensively but defensively as well. That won't require an all-defensive performance—just a consistent effort.
Otherwise, the most important thing in James' life will be set aside for an early vacation in mid-April.