Dwyane Wade says any talk about how the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs in their first season with LeBron James must include a caveat about his longtime friend and former teammate's groin injury.
Speaking with Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic, Wade noted the Lakers were firmly in the Western Conference postseason race before the four-time NBA MVP missed five weeks because of the injury.
"LeBron's not a guy that is accustomed to losing and not making the playoffs," he said. "Obviously, man, those 18 games that he was out hurt with them, it's kind of a wash. You can't even really talk about him not making the playoffs, because of that. They was the fourth seed when he went out. It's unfortunate."
The Lakers were 19-14 heading into a game against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas. James was injured in that contest, and by the time he returned, L.A. had dropped to 26-25, which was two games out of the final playoff spot in the West.
Wade said it's too tough for a team to overcome losing its best player: "Having a year out there in the Western Conference, it is tough. You can't miss time, you can't miss games like he missed. So hopefully, going forward, he doesn't have that."
He defended James against critics, per Charania:
"People are trying to attack him a lot from the standpoint of age. It's no secret that he's getting older, he's going to get older every year. It's no doubt that you're not the same person you was, but he's still great. If this is a bad year for him—this is a bad year for him? MVPs get this kind of year. He's had an MVP type of year. I think he understands the scrutiny that comes with being LeBron James. Whether he comes out and talks about it or not, he's driven by something different. That's why he's so great. He helps ratings for TV. He knows that. It doesn't stop nothing. He continues to approach the game the way he approaches it."
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James has averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists in 53 appearances after signing a four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Lakers. He ranks seventh among all players in ESPN's real plus-minus and ninth in player efficiency rating.
It's fair to wonder whether the outcome of Los Angeles' season would have been different with better injury luck. Not only did LeBron miss a significant stretch of the campaign, but Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have also missed time.
Nevertheless, the Lakers failed to reach the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, and James won't participate in the postseason for the first time since 2005.
LeBron's status as the NBA's gold standard means the team's failure to reach expectations is going to result in criticism, regardless of the surrounding circumstances.