As well-positioned as the Lakers have been all season, with Anthony Davis playing alongside star LeBron James and with a 5.5-game lead in the Western Conference standings at the time of the NBA’s suspension because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, there remains a lingering concern: Just how sustainable is the current model of the team, with James at 35 years old and a significant number of key players signed to short-term deals?
Maybe not much. That was the sentiment of longtime NBA insider Ric Bucher, appearing on Fox Sports today. If the Lakers do not win a championship in the season reboot, starting at the end of this month, James might miss the best chance he has at grabbing a fourth championship ring.
“Honestly, there’s no question that this is his last best chance to get a fourth ring,” Bucher said. “And I believe it is one of the reasons why, initially, when we had the shutdown that he was OK with not coming back and playing because we would have given him the mythical title, with the Lakers leading the Western Conference and the Bucks being unproven as a playoff team. We would have said, ‘Ah, you know what? LeBron would have got it this year so let’s give it to him.’
“Now because we are coming back and playing, he has to prove it.”
LeBron James has Been an MVP Candidate All Season
James, of course, has been proving it for much of the season. Asked to play most of his minutes as the team’s point guard, James has responded in a big way, leading the NBA in assists at 10.6 per game. He is still averaging 25.7 points on 49.8% shooting, taking in 7.9 rebounds per game.
The league’s MVP award is likely to go to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, but there is no doubt that at the time of the season postponement, James was gaining ground and is the clear No. 2 choice in the race for the top individual honor.
But it is not James’ ability to perform nightly that concerns Bucher, he said. The bigger worry is what happens to the Lakers’ roster if the team rolls through Orlando and comes out without a trophy, starting with the most pressing issue: whether Davis signs a long-term deal to stick with the team.
I am not even going to talk about LeBron. We have tried to stick a fork in him too many times to say, he’s old, he’s past the curve, it’s not going to happen. He has been able to maintain himself in terrific shape.
I am going to talk simply about where the Lakers are. If they don’t win one or they get knocked out early, does Anthony Davis have second thoughts about re-upping with the Lakers? I don’t have any reason to believe that he will but until we get to that point, the fact of the matter is, they have to re-up him. They also have to re-up a number of other guys who signed on the cheap—Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard. You may laugh at those names but the fact of the matter is, those guys have played a part in this and because of where they are cap-wise, they won’t be able to replace them.
Has the Fear of LeBron James Dissipated?
Also relevant here: The fear factor that surrounds a star like James diminishes over time. It has been, after all, three years since James last won an NBA championship, a drought that could stretch to four years if the NBA reboot does not end well for the purple-and-gold.
That could lessen the Lakers’ attractiveness as a free-agent destination while strengthening the team’s rivals, especially the team that does win the title. The Lakers have been able to land good players at cut-rate prices because they offer a legitimate chance at a title while playing with James. But if more years go by without an actual ring for James, that becomes a tougher sell.
There have already been signs of a waning of the fear of James—Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, after all, welcomed a move to the Clippers, willingly going head-to-head with James in Los Angeles.
If the Lakers don’t win now, that could portend things to come.
“If he doesn’t win it this year, that means somebody else did,” Bucher said. “They become the lion. We’ve already seen it with LeBron—Kawhi wasn’t afraid to come to L.A., Paul George was not afraid to come to L.A. Guys are willing to go up against LeBron now. If he goes another year without a ring? He is not going to be the dog everybody’s worried about. And that has a huge influence on how things go.”