LOS ANGELES – LeBron James Weekend at the Staples Center was a dud on and off the court: Cleveland’s four-time MVP jogged through a pair of double-digit losses, then passed on flirting with a Lakers franchise that has been endlessly linked to him in rumors.
Fans who turned out in a rainbow of James jerseys—from high school green to Olympic white to Cleveland black to custom-made Laker gold—had to settle for flashes of brilliance rather than one of his signature takeovers. Here, on Friday, a pump fake at the arc that sent Clippers center DeAndre Jordan flying and opened the paint for a dunk on Friday. There, on Sunday, a nifty ball fake and look-away pass that fooled two Lakers and set up Ante Zizic for an easy slam. His utter nonchalance during both highlights gave the impression that he has, at age 33, mastered every move in existence. Even when James is going through the motions, he can still make skilled players look silly at will.
But the Cavaliers—remade at the deadline and ravaged by injuries—left their franchise player pounding the ball in frustration on more than one occasion. Jordan overwhelmed Cleveland’s undersized and understaffed frontline for a 20-point, 23-rebound performance in a 116-102 Clippers win. Two days later, Lakers forward Julius Randle applied the same pressure, pouring in 36 points and 14 rebounds in a 127-113 win. The damage for Cleveland was so thorough on Sunday that coach Tyronn Lue pulled James with more than six minutes to go. With the Lakers reserves salting away the win in garbage time, owner Jeanie Buss and president Magic Johnson exited the court area before the final buzzer.
The long-awaited carnival—James’ last trip to LA prior to his 2018 free agency—was over before it had a chance to get good.
Even as Johnson sought out James’s agent, Rich Paul, during the game, the Lakers’ blowout victory didn’t exactly qualify as a recruiting pitch. LA’s biggest contributors—Randle, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Isaiah Thomas—are all free agents this summer. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ young core was only so-so: rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma struggled from the field, while second-year forward Brandon Ingram sat out with a groin injury.
Indirectly, though, the Lakers and everyone else hoping to pry away James from the Cavaliers gain hope by the day. Cleveland’s season-long defensive woes have persisted, its injury issues have continued unabated, and the ragtag group surrounding James understandably lacks chemistry. James’s orchestration was regularly sabotaged by out-of-tune teammates. He zipped a cross-court pass to George Hill, who missed the three. He tried to find a weakside shooter, only to have the ball carom off a cutting Larry Nance Jr. He nutmegged Ball in transition, but Jeff Green missed the dunk finish.
“You’ve got to get the most out of whoever you’ve got on the floor,” James said on Sunday. “Sometimes you just can’t overcome this many injuries that we have. Five out of top nine or 10 in our rotation are not playing because of injuries. It’s next man up. Sometimes you fall short.”
The back-to-back losses dropped Cleveland to the East’s fourth seed and, given injuries to Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood and Cedi Osman, further freefall is possible. Indeed, the Cavaliers will be hard-pressed to win 50 games, a benchmark that James’s teams have cleared comfortably every year since 2008 (aside from the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season). They’re also running out of time to pull together into something resembling a true contender.
“You don’t know,” James acknowledged, when asked if Cleveland was headed in the right direction. “You don’t know.”
From these cracks, and the possibility that James’s consecutive Finals streak ends at seven, will flow a million rumors over the next four months. How exactly the Lakers fit into landscape of suitors remains to be seen. The Rockets and Spurs are more fully-formed, the Sixers are young while being readier to win now, and the Cavaliers are still home.
Nevertheless, Lakers supporters can make this case: Crazier things have happened in NBA free agency, and they happened specifically when James returned to the Cavaliers in 2014.
Remember, at this time in 2014, the Heat were still defending champs, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were still All-Star players, president Pat Riley was still seen as untouchable, and the East was weaker than it is currently. Miami’s issues weren’t exposed until the Finals, as they waltzed through the East with a 12-3 record. By comparison, the 2018 Cavaliers are shakier, less proven and lacking in comparable star power. And while the East is still far less formidable than the West, James is set for his biggest intra-conference test since returning to Cleveland.
The 2018 Lakers are in a better spot than the 2014 Cavaliers were too. Take the time machine back four years, and it’s an ugly sight: Mike Brown was on his way to being fired (for the second time in five years), David Griffin had replaced Chris Grant midseason, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters were sparring in the locker room, and the 33-win Cavaliers were lottery-bound for the fourth straight year. On top of all that, Dan Gilbert was still The Guy That Trashed LeBron On His Way Out Of Town rather than the owner who oversaw the first championship in Cavaliers franchise history.
While these Lakers will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, they are tracking towards a respectable 37 victories. The 2014 version of Irving was a better player than any of LA’s youngsters, but Ball, Ingram and Kuzma are all promising and they fit well together. There’s not a Waiters in the bunch. The 2014 Cavaliers had Andrew Wiggins as trade bait, but the 2018 Lakers have a second max slot available to help retool the roster around James.
Coach Luke Walton has shown steady progress in his second season, resolve in the face of criticism, and he carries far less baggage than either Brown or his eventual replacement, David Blatt. Meanwhile, Johnson and Rob Pelinka have methodically positioned the franchise to acquire A-list talent this summer, and they have yet to seriously blunder since taking over last season. And although the Buss Family has had its share of drama recently, nothing really compares to calling James “cowardly” in comic sans.
On top of all that, of course, there’s the LA market, the Lakers mystique, and ready access to James’s non-basketball business interests. Picking the Lakers this summer might not be James’s best available move given the alternatives, but it would make as much sense as his return to the Cavaliers did four years ago. Or more.
Other than donning a “Hollywood” edition of his signature Nike sneakers, James didn’t play the bread-crumb game this weekend. Whereas Kobe Bryant spent his final season holding nightly press conferences in a packed media room and taking questions in three languages, James, Bryant’s equal as a media maestro, buried himself at his corner locker after both losses. Dozens of reporters and cameramen tripped over each other, and James’s Cavaliers teammates, for a possible taste of rumor-mongering. James didn’t indulge them, choosing instead to briskly work through questions about Cleveland’s shortcomings while offering generic praise to Jordan, Walton and Randle.
Taken together, James’s relative silence and his team’s lackluster play felt like an invitation: Cleveland’s current plan isn’t working so let’s hear better ones. As James surely understands, opening a vacuum can say far more than a sound byte.