The real LeBron James finally showed up yesterday, and to contend that the Lakers needed his best would be to underscore the obvious. With leading scorer, rebounder, and defender Anthony Davis out due to a bruised left calf, he stepped up to post a season-high 39 markers (on 11-of-21, seven-of 11, and a perfect 10-of-10 shooting from the field, beyond the arc, and at the foul line, respectively) along with 11 caroms and three dimes. His exertions enabled the purple and gold to come up with their fifth win in six outings, the last three against the lowly Spurs.
The question, of course, is whether James remains capable of stringing together big numbers. Prior to his return from a strained left adductor injury that kept him out for five matches, he had low norms not seen since his early years, or at all through his 20-year career. He appeared to show his age as the Lakers collected loss after loss; he inched closer to the National Basketball Association record for career scoring, but with poor efficiency reflecting his mileage. He’ll be turning 40 next month, and an old 40 to boot, with more than 63,500 minutes in a whopping 1,643 outings under his belt.
James’ battle with Father Time is why not a few quarters have figured him to be losing relevance. From their vantage point, he’s relying on his body of work to fuel increasingly unrealistic expectations, to the Lakers’ detriment. Which is why the impetus is on him to prove that he still has a lot left in his tank. And, in this regard, he needs more high marks, and with consistency, to quell criticism that he brings down, instead of prop up, those around him. Heck, even his performance yesterday was not without blemish; he had the worst plus-minus rating on the winning side, what with his on-ball and help defense not quite up to par, and he once again finished with more turnovers than assists.
Make no mistake. Unless and until the Lakers get positive outcomes in the trade market, James and Davis (and, to a lesser extent, Westbrook and their patchwork supporting cast) are all they have. Only they can therefore answer if they have what it takes to quiet doubters. Saying the right things is a good first step, but doing the right things is critical to success. And if they don’t, it’ll be another long season of frustration ending in disappointment.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.