LeBron James is a marvel.
At age 36 (soon to be 37), with more miles on his body than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron can still take over a game and lift up a team with him like no other. He can win games nearly by himself, and he did it to Indiana Wednesday. It was the second night of a road back-to-back for the other Lakers (LeBron had Tuesday in New York off), Anthony Davis was out sick, and it was the last game of a road trip, the exact kind of game where a team can let go of the rope, take the L and get on the plane home.
LeBron scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, hit huge threes, got a couple of Pacers fans ejected, and lifted the Lakers to an overtime win in Indiana.
“That’s why he’s the GOAT, man,” the Lakers Malik Monk said.
“What LeBron did tonight was just a performance for the ages. I know these fans and how much they love their hoops here in Indianapolis. And he put on one hell of a show,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
We need to savor what we get to watch in LeBron — there will not be another player like him. LeBron is the first superstar in the social media age, and that means there are always trolls online — and a few talking heads on TV — ready to take him down and thrash him at the first opportunity because it gets them attention. That’s the reality of the age. But if you love the game of basketball, you need to take a step back, marvel at LeBron, and appreciate greatness when you see it.
LeBron can still lift a team up and carry them for a stretch like no other.
Will that be enough for these Lakers to contend?
The Lakers needed overtime and a LeBron takeover to beat an 8-12 Pacers team, a win that lifted the Lakers to .500 on the season. There are reasons for the slow start. It’s fair to point out LeBron has missed more than half the Lakers games, that Russell Westbrook started slow but has come on in the second halves of recent seasons, that there were a lot of new faces in the locker room and this team is still gelling. Everyone can point to LeBron teams in Miami and Cleveland starting the season slow, finding their footing later, and making the Finals. There’s good reason to say, “let’s see what the Lakers look like around Christmas before we judge them.”
But these Lakers are not a good defensive team, and turning that around will take more than a healthy LeBron.
The Lakers are 22nd in the NBA in defense (using Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time from its stats, but even more favorable formulas have them 19th). They are bottom 10 in halfcourt defense (their transition defense has been solid). Anthony Davis is elite defensively, versatile, and a quality rim protector, but the Lakers are short plus defenders after him. LeBron can defend for stretches, Kent Bazemore plays solid team defense, the Lakers will get Trevor Ariza back from injury at some point, but at age 36 he’s no stopper. After that, it gets really thin.
The Lakers won the bubble championship because of their defense — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green were all on that team and made important defensive contributions. All are now helping either Chicago or Philadelphia. Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley were on that title team, but neither is defending now at the level they did a couple of years ago.
In a playoff matchup with the Warriors, who guards Stephen Curry? Or Klay Thompson? Or even Jordan Poole? Do the Lakers have the defenders to slow Devin Booker and Chris Paul in a playoff matchup with the Suns? Or Donovan Mitchell in Utah surrounded by shooters and a hard-rolling Rudy Gobert?
Frank Vogel is an outstanding defensive coach, but take enough chess pieces away from him and there’s no strategy he can design that will hide all the flaws.
These Lakers should improve as the season goes on, so long as James and Davis stay healthy — and with those two they are a serious playoff threat. I picked them to come out of the West before the season started.
But LeBron and Davis aren’t going to be enough come the postseason if the Lakers don’t get stops.