LeBron James sat alone on the end of the Lakers bench during a timeout Wednesday night in Miami, the retired jerseys of his former championship teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade hanging above him.
Two days away from turning 38, James has a lot on his mind.
“I have multiple thoughts. I think about the day to day of how we get better throughout the course of the season. But how we get better from game to game,” he said. “I think about how much longer I’m going to play the game. I think about that I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level from a team aspect. I’ll still be able to be compete for championships because I know what I can still bring to any ballclub with the right pieces.”
While James’ thirst for individual greatness has never been that well concealed, it’s come in the context of competition, his teams always in it as long as he was on the court.
But Wednesday, after he scored 27 more meaningless points for a team that’s now seven games under .500 after a 112-98 loss to the Heat, James reflected on the someday ending of his career — and the circumstances he doesn’t want to be a part of.
“I’m a winner and I want to win. And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships,” James said directly. “That has always been my passion, that has always been my goal since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio. And I know it takes steps to get there, but once you get there and know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore. So, we’ll see what happens and see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple years.”
James is averaging 27.8 points on nearly 50% shooting with 8.1 rebounds and 6.6. assists per game.
It’s the third time he’s averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists since joining the Lakers. Only Larry Bird and John Havlicek have averaged those numbers after turning 30.
Adding in one season in Cleveland when he did it, James is on track to do it for the fourth time (and the second straight year).
Against the Heat, the Lakers turned the ball over 27 times and allowed 19 second-chance points. They trailed by as many as 22 before getting within seven in the fourth before mistakes snuffed out their rally.
Asked about the causes for the Lakers’ defensive inconsistency, Patrick Beverley listed several factors after noting Anthony Davis’ absence due to injury.
“I don’t know, sense of urgency, discipline mixed with a little IQ, mixed with a little passion, enthusiasm, you know, all that mixed together,” he said. “At times, we do show it. In glimpses, we don’t. And when we don’t, we lose.”
The Lakers are seemingly headed to another year without any real credible chances for a championship — the playoffs themselves looking bleak with Davis out and a roster unable to make up for his absence.
James needs 575 points to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.
If the team fails to make the postseason again this spring, it’ll be the third time the Lakers have done so since they reset their franchise by signing James in 2018.
James signed an extension with the Lakers on Aug. 17. He can become a free agent before the 2024 season by declining an approximate $50-million option. Because of the extension, he’s ineligible to be traded until after this season.
The Lakers means for improving their roster this season are limited, rules prohibiting them from trading first-round picks other than the ones they have in 2027 and 2029 because of the steep price they paid for Davis.
Internally, sources said, there’s been serious consideration given to riding out the season without making a major deal if they can’t find one that would make the team a realistic contender.
Thanks to Davis’ and James’ injuries, roster depth depleted from a deal for Russell Westbrook and a revolving supporting cast since his title with L.A., the Lakers’ level of competitiveness since winning the 2020 NBA championship has been uneven at best.
This season, while fully healthy, they went to Milwaukee and played a near-perfect game to beat the Bucks.
They also, since losing Davis, lost to Charlotte and allowed Dallas to score 51 points in a single quarter — nearly a franchise record for defensive futility.
Only three rotation players on the team have a positive plus-minus rating on the season —Austin Reaves, Davis and James.
Prior to the year, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said on media day the Lakers were committed to maximizing James’ time with the organization by improving the roster.
“Let me be abundantly clear: We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract. So of course, we will do everything we can, picks included to make deals to give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end,” Pelinka said.
Pelinka, though, did explain the complexities of the Lakers’ trade limitations because of their commitments to New Orleans from the Davis trade.
“It has to be the right one. You only get one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decision on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster,” he said. “And again I started the question by saying we are committed to doing everything we can to put the best team around LeBron as long as it’s a smart trade, because of the limitations caused by the Stepien rule and the implications of that.”
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 9.