It was after a deflating loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of the first-round series in the 2018 playoffs when LeBron James memorably took umbrage with the idea that he’d willingly and publicly criticize his teammates.
This was a series that the Cleveland Cavaliers were trying not to lose control of, at a time in James’ second Cleveland tenure when he was required to carry a Herculean burden. Asked about the lack of contributions he was getting from his supporting cast to that point in the series, James snapped: “What are you guys looking for? You want me to throw my teammates under the bus? No, I’m not going to do that. I’m not about that.”
Almost a year later, in new surroundings with a whole new set of challenges piling up on James’ broad shoulders, his tune has changed.
Playing with LeBron has always been demanding, the way playing with the great ones always is. His booming voice has always carried, from the practice court to the locker room to the huddle on game nights. In addition to dictating and dominating the action on the floor, James has had a tendency to “suck all of the oxygen out of the room,” one of his former assistant coaches told Bleacher Report.
But as this Lakers season continues to spiral toward the likely possibility that James will not make the playoffs for the first time since his second year in the league, James has grown increasingly vocal in challenging his teammates publicly.
He has stepped out of character, and it does not seem to be helping. The Lakers (30-35) have lost four in a row and six of seven, putting them 6.5 games out of the eighth seed in the West. Most of the analytics gurus put L.A.’s chances of making the postseason at less than 1 percent. Las Vegas is equally bearish, making the Lakers a plus-600 bet to make the postseason as of Sunday, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
“I’ve never seen him like this, and I’m a little shocked because I’ve been around him and thought he was more of a leader,” a Western Conference executive said. “All of a sudden, I’m seeing a different LeBron. Dude, don’t do that; you’re hurting yourself. The best thing he can do is tell everybody, ‘My guys have been great, I can do better, and we need to continue to improve as a team.’ He hasn’t done that. Instead, he’s throwing people under the bus.”
Perhaps the clearest signal that James was changing his usual approach came in a calm but biting postgame interview after a 128-115 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 23. New Orleans was playing without Anthony Davis, whom James’ agent, Rich Paul, had unsuccessfully tried to steer to the Lakers via a bold and public trade request prior to the Feb. 7 deadline.
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“Basketball—is that the most important thing?” James told reporters after the loss. “Why are we doing this? Is this the most important thing in your life at this time? … If you feel you gave it all [in that game], then you have nothing to look back on. You can go on and do other things. But if you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else.”
It came across as a lecture, a loaded statement suggesting James believed his teammates’ focus was not where it needed to be. He also questioned his teammates’ experience and “sense of urgency.”
“How do you know what’s at stake if you’ve never been there before?” James added, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
After the Lakers’ next game—a 110-105 loss at lowly Memphis—James issued his now-much-talked about “distraction” diatribe. The context, provided by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, was a question from a reporter about whether the Lakers’ push for a spot in the playoffs was causing distractions that were affecting the team’s performance.
“At this point, if you are still allowing distractions to affect the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of,” James said. “… Just come and do your job.”
Why the about-face from LeBron on his supposed rule to never publicly criticize his teammates? Why all the angst?
It all started on Christmas Day, when James went down with a strained groin in a victory over the Warriors. The Lakers were 20-14 at the time and well positioned to make the playoffs—as if James or anybody else would expect any different given that he’s made it to the NBA Finals eight years in a row. Since the injury, the Lakers are 10-21 and on postseason life support.
While it’s fair to criticize James’ leadership style and level of engagement at times this season, a person familiar with James’ approach said: “I think all of that is far and away less significant than the injury. I think the injury is about 70 percent of it.”
Still, it’s not hard to see something appears off. Just check any of the clips making the Instagram rounds showing James taking plays off on defense—including an especially damning one in which Kyle Kuzma literally forced James to close out on Danilo Gallinari by shoving him in a loss to the Clippers on Monday night. This is not James Harden we’re talking about; LeBron has been a lot of things in his career, but a loafer isn’t one of them. Indeed, the Lakers all but admitted James needs a break when Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes reported the 34-year-old four-time MVP would be on a minutes restriction the rest of the season and might be held out of any remaining back-to-backs.
House of Highlights @HoHighlights
Kyle Kuzma pushes LeBron on defense and Patrick Beverley flexed on the Lakers as they lost again. 😨😨😨 https://t.co/dBP0zzXzry
It’s also difficult to ignore the lingering impact of the power play James’ agent tried to pull with Davis’ trade demand, which resulted in most of the Lakers’ useful players having their names dragged through trade rumors for days.
“How would you feel if you’re Kyle Kuzma and you’re living in L.A.—where it’s 75 degrees every day—and you think this is going to be your home for the next 15 years?” another Western Conference executive asked. “Those guys don’t want to go to New Orleans.”
But the broader topic is what leadership means today for the modern NBA superstar. In ancient times (like, you know, 15 years ago), leadership meant that NBA stars embraced the challenge of making those around them better. Now, in large part due to the player-movement era that James ushered in when he left Cleveland to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010, superstars have been conditioned to give up on their current circumstances and demand better teammates, a new home or both.
“Now it’s all about deferring and putting blame on somebody else,” one of the Western Conference executives said. “Instead of being like an old-school guy and saying: ‘I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to make my teammates better.’ Great players and great leaders, that’s what they do. That’s what Kobe [Bryant] would’ve done. That’s what Michael Jordan would’ve done.”
Not to get romantic about the Jordan era, but in those days, the likes of Bill Cartwright and Steve Kerr needed Jordan to elevate them. How well the biggest star on your team did that defined how effective a leader he was. Today, with star players perpetually angling for better teammates and more attractive markets, the narrative has shifted. Suddenly, it’s become the job of the supporting players to make the superstars better. And if the superstar struggles, it must be his teammates’ fault.
And it’s not only LeBron’s teammates who are getting the blame. Just this week, in a subtle backhanded slap at the team’s decision-makers, he told reporters, “You have four guys in our top-eight rotation that you have to really rely on, and it’s unfair to them to ask for so much when they’re in their second or third year.”
“These new-school guys always want to put it on somebody else,” one of the Western Conference executives said. “It’s an immediate-gratification society, and it’s always someone else’s fault.”
To be fair, Bryant also made a public and messy trade demand in 2007. And it’s not implausible to think that Jordan’s approach might have been different if he had to go through a team like the Warriors—with five All-Stars and two former MVPs—just to make it to the Finals. But that’s also part of the problem James is facing. In some ways, he’s experiencing the boomerang effect of the team-jumping, ring-chasing NBA culture that he helped create.
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“That’s going to taint him now when he finishes,” one of the execs said.
Is this about LeBron James? A lot of it is. But it’s also about a generational shift in the definition of superstar leadership in the NBA. Why bear the burden of elevating others when you can just make a lot of noise and force the front office to get you better teammates…or go find a place that already has better players and join them?
“Is everyone just a pawn to help the great players achieve success?” one of the execs asked. “Or is the great player the genesis of that success?”
I think we have our answer. And so does LeBron James.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.