Barring something completely unforeseen at some point this week Lebron James will become the highest-scoring NBA player in history, eclipsing as a Laker the record that Laker all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held since 1984, when he broke the seemingly insurmountable total that Wilt Chamberlain had set in a previous era, he also finishing his NBA career as a Laker. Needing 36 points to top Kareem, and with a home game against the potentially defensive-weak Oklahoma City Thunder scheduled for a national TV audience tonight, it’s entirely possible he may get that mark out of the way before Thursday night’s tilt with the team that Kareem started his career with, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Even if Lebron denies the league and its partners the chance for the mark to be set in such a poetic and serendiptious manner were it to happen against the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, when he does set the record he will receive thunderous cheers, plaudits and likely millions of congraulatory tweets. As an individual player, he will be deserving of all of them and then some. And the fact that in his age 38 season, his 20th in the NBA, he continues to perform at such a high level is testimony that his place in NBA history, and his current title as The King, is well-earned.
But as my colleague Mr. Garg wrote the other day, his standing and legacy as a TEAM leader, and as a title-winner is a much weaker argument. And the fact that tonight’s game is a battle for the 12th seed in a 15-team conference is evidence that track record isn’t all that great now. Nor is Lebron’s ability to play de facto general manager, nor to limit his snark at the Laker management even as they prepare to honor his on-court accomplishments with a coronation worthy of that other King–the one that just lost his mum.
As Matias Grez of CNN reported, Lebron did not hide his displeasure that Dallas wound up trading for his one-time Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving over the weekend:
“I can’t sit here and say I’m not disappointed on not being able to land such a talent,” James told ESPN on Monday. “But [also] someone that I had great chemistry with and know I got great chemistry with on the floor, that can help you win championships, in my mind, in my eyes.”
Funny how Lebron’s focus on his timetable, which is certainly a more truncated and accelerated one than the rebuilding Lakers have, has consistently contributed to the level of underperformance they have had since he joined the team, save for the bubble title of 2020 where Lebron was the defacto Players Association leader, essentially the glue that got the players into Orlando and endure horrible food, draconian protocols and mostly virtual fans, not to mention leading protest postponements in reaction to the murders of the likes of George Floyd and Jacob Blake. Factors that contributed directly to the focused James, along with an atypically healthy Anthony Davis, to drive the Lakers to their first title since 2010, albeit an asterisked one.
As a strategist, his insistence on trading valuable draft collateral for Russell Westbrook has been disastorous. Westbrook has been a selfish, divisive presence, occasionally capable of great on-court performance but more often a distraction, unapologetically aloof and tone-deaf in helping the team develop and curate younger talents. And if that describes Westbrook, Irving’s off-court behavior is exemplary of a Westbrook on steroids. Throw in Kyrie’s unsolicited thoughts on Hitler and vaccines, and yep, you’ve got an ideal teammate, at least in James’ eyes.
And when one presses Lebron on his future commitment to the Lakers, despite his signing a contract extension, you get someone who indivates he is hardly all in for the long haul. He continues to dream of playing on the same court with his son Bronny, now about to start his quest for a Los Angeles area high school title, very likely the only title any basketball team in Los Angeles will be contending for this year. While that’s a noble trait as a parent, the track record of those father-son pairings in pro sports isn’t exactly stellar. Neither the Griffeys nor the Howes won a single playoff game, let alone a title, when they were teammates. And, frankly, while Bronny has youth on his side, he’s far and away not yet the kind of talent that can truly help a team with as much need as the Lakers have. They’d be better suited for, say, the expansion team in Las Vegas that Lebron has all but seduced the NBA into awarding him once they’re both ready to make that step. It’s probably inevitable, but it’s not yet a reality. So there’s a short-term window of opportunity.
At least as short-term as the opportunity was for a team to capitalize on Irving. And despite the off-court drama and disruption that ultimately evicerated Irving’s time in Brooklyn, leave it to Mark Cuban to somehow be willing to trade two decent players plus draft picks to team Irving up with Luka Doncic and coach Jason Kidd. Cuban smells an opportunity to actually win a Western Conference with no clearly dominant team among 13 competitors–yes, even the Lakers, a mere 3 1/2 games out of a playoff berth at nearly the two-thirds mark of the regular season. Even the possibility of potentially paying Irving his $200M ask for a long-term extension doesn’t daunt him. He once spent $40M to buy a boat on the Internet. Irving’s ask is not quite loose change even to him, but it’s well within his budget.
So here’s my random idea to Rob Pelinka, Lebron and Cuban:
Why not let Lebron take his talents to Big D?
If he truly wants to team up with Irving again, well, that’s where he is (for now). Once the record is set, in all reality, the Lakers’ realistic chances to emerge from that crowded pack are nominal, as it’s likely without the impetus of chasing history Lebron’s appetite down the stretch, now that Irving is off the board and lesser options demanding too much from Pelinka to be a legitimate trading partner, is likely to fade quickly.
But just suppose Pelinka were to offer Cuban Lebron? And the possibility of a Big Three of Luka, Kyrie and Lebron–as close to the combo that the Heat saw with Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as one could put together at this stage? Yep, the very troika that Cuban beat in 2011, ultimately pushing Lebron to take his talents away from South Beach?
And, hey, guess where Kyrie’s first game as a Maverick will be tomorrow night? At the very same Crypto.com Arena where Pelinka has an office, albeit against the Clippers. Yes, the very same Clippers who will soon eschew that now-aging downtown arena for a larger, private venue mere steps from the Inglewood arena where Kareem scored a large number of his points, and won more titles than Lebron ever will in the process. And will make that move at a point in time where the Lakers look to a compromised, talent-empty future–one that James’ “managerial prowess” helped make all the more likely.
Wouldn’t be all that hard for Mark and Rob to grab a bite and talk about all of this–as the Thursday afternoon NBA trade deadline looms.
Don’t think for a second those thoughts haven’t at least crossed Cuban’s mind. Remember, he and I do have a history.
If the record is still unbroken after tonight, and as logic settles in, I’ll admit the chances of any of this coming to pass is highly unlikely. But considering I’d much prefer to focus on Lebron scoring more points tonight than, say, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I for one am hoping he ups his game, gets the record out of the way, and then considers walking away from the mess he’s helped foster in LA.
As any good Jew knows, 36 is “double chai”, a sign of good fortune and answered prayers. I’ll hope that’s an omen for this King, so perhaps he’ll be able to leave town with his head high, rather than on a rail.