Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 7, 2019

LeBron’s Milestone Can’t Replace A Lost Season

Perhaps it was because of the 1,190 regular season games that LeBron James has played during his NBA career, this was just his 47th in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. Maybe it was because everyone in the capacity crowd at the Staples Center knew the Lakers had lost three in a row, beginning with a particularly demoralizing defeat to the Phoenix Suns, at the time the worst franchise in the league. Or perhaps it was because aside from marking the milestone, the bucket that James sunk after taking a short bounce pass from Rajon Rondo at the free throw line and forcing his way down the lane past Nikola Jokic and Torrey Craig, merely cut the second quarter lead of the visiting Denver Nuggets to fifteen points, meaning L.A. appeared on its way to a fourth straight loss and an all but certain absence from the playoffs.

Whatever the reason, the reaction to James passing Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Wednesday night was decidedly muted. The fans came to their feet for in a standing ovation while the game was briefly stopped after James’s career points total rose to 32,294, two more than Jordan. A timeout was called so he could receive the congratulations of his teammates and coaches, and then the dominant player of his time sat on the bench with a towel over his face, clearly feeling the emotion of surpassing the legend who James grew up idolizing.

But that was in sharp contrast to the night James broke the 30,0000 point barrier, just over one year ago. That event was widely feted, including by James himself, who put up a self-congratulatory post on Instagram featuring a photo of his younger self on the afternoon before the game in which he actually scored his 30,000th point. The reaction at the Staples Center was also far more restrained than when Kobe Bryant moved past Jordan in 2014. That game was halted for a ceremony in which the team owner presented Bryant with the game ball while the crowd cheered. The accolade was even more impressive since the Lakers were on the road at the time, and the team owner was Glen Taylor of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

To be sure, James received plenty of support from both current and former players, including Jordan, on various social media outlets and in statements to the press. But precisely because he remains the player at center stage of the $8 billion business that is the NBA, James carries the weight of enormous expectations, whatever uniform he wears. What Wednesday night made clear is that even a great personal achievement is not enough to overcome the rank disappointment that fans in both L.A. and across the country feel about the Lakers performance this year.

It is a sentiment that is not entirely fair. The considered judgment of most analysts when the season started last October was that the players L.A. had surrounded James with for his first season on the West Coast did not have the makings of a champion. Much of the roster was ranked as too young and inexperienced to be supportive, and the consensus opinion was that the handful of veterans did not necessarily complement James’s game. The Lakers were given a shot at making the playoffs, though not considered a lock to do so, and only the most ardent L.A. fan had them running deep into the postseason.

But then the team got off to a fast start, and by the time the Lakers’ record peaked at 17-11 in December, the tempered expectations had been replaced by growing confidence that L.A. would return to the playoffs for the first time in six years, and an emerging dream that once there, King James would carry the franchise further than anyone had dared hope.

That all unraveled with astonishing speed, beginning with a groin injury that sidelined James for several weeks. When he finally returned the team’s early season chemistry had been lost, and the defeats continued to outnumber the wins. The heady record of the Christmas season has given way to a mark five games below .500, at 30-35, after a comeback effort against the Nuggets fell short Wednesday night. Los Angeles is now 11th in the Western Conference standings, 6 ½ games out of a spot in the postseason tournament. The Lakers might well have to run the table from here on in to make the playoffs, which is another way of saying that James’s thirteen-year streak of postseason basketball is about to end.

There will be consequences of course. Head coach Luke Walton is assuredly a dead man walking, and L.A.’s current roster will look very different come next October. That’s when James, by then approaching his 35th birthday, will once again try to bring joy to Lakers fans, as he has already done for fanbases in Cleveland and Miami. Sometime in that next campaign, most likely early in its second half, James will approach his next milestone on the career scoring list. It’s the third spot, currently occupied by Bryant, who spent his entire career in L.A. How longtime Lakers fans react to that will probably depend a lot on how their team is faring at the time. As LeBron James learned this week, the one question fans always ask, even of the greatest stars, is what have you done for me lately?

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