NBA

It’s Not Right to Saddle LeBron James and the Lakers With the Pressure of Winning an NBA Title to Honor Kobe Bryant

As LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers prepare to resume their season in the Orlando bubble, they’re clearly one of the favorites to win the NBA title on paper. The Lakers were 49-14, the second-best mark in the NBA behind the Milwaukee Bucks, before the league shut down in mid-March due to COVID-19 and will take a 5.5-game lead in the Western Conference into the restart of the season on July 30. As per usual, LeBron James was having an MVP-caliber season before the league shut down, averaging 25.7 points, an NBA-best 10.6 assists, and 7.9 rebounds.

With just eight seeding games before the start of the postseason, it would take quite the collapse for them not to be the top seed in the West heading into the playoffs, not that it really matters now as there’s no home-court advantage to be had.

But as the restart of the season inches closer, there will be conversations had on another reason why LeBron and Lakers should win the NBA title: Kobe Bryant. The five-time NBA champion was tragically killed in a helicopter crash on January 26, an accident that also claimed the lives of eight others, including Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Since that day, many people have said that it’s now on LeBron James to honor Kobe’s legacy by bringing a 17th NBA title to the Lakers, pressure that’s completely unfair to put on anyone.

There was a lot of pressure on LeBron James when he joined the Lakers

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When LeBron James joined the Lakers in 2018, many thought he was taking on the toughest challenge of his career, perhaps even tougher than bringing an NBA championship to Cleveland. It had been just two years since Kobe Bryant retired and James was stepping into quite the big shadow.

In addition, the Lakers simply weren’t good when LeBron arrived. Over the previous five seasons, no team had lost more games than LA. They had some young, talented players but the big free agents simply weren’t interested anymore. It was as if nobody wanted to be the guy after Kobe.

But James did, even if it meant that he’d miss out on the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years. The Lakers went 37-45 in 2018-2019, missing the postseason for the sixth straight year, easily the longest stretch in franchise history.

Kobe Bryant fans had a rough time embracing LeBron James as the face of the franchise. Yes, things did get better when Anthony Davis came to town last summer and the team started winning. But even a week before his death, knowing LeBron was about to pass him on the NBA all-time scoring list, Kobe was still trying to urge Lakers fans to get behind him (h/t Los Angeles Times).

“When LeBron came to Los Angeles, he is now a Laker, he is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way. 

“You got to celebrate … appreciate what he is as an athlete while he is here” he added. “Appreciate this guy, celebrate what he’s done, because it’s truly remarkable.”

Kobe Bryant on LeBron James

And then the unthinkable happened. Kobe Bryant, arguably the best player to ever wear purple and gold, passed away.

The death of Kobe Bryant hit LeBron James hard

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The untimely death of Kobe Bryant hit the entire basketball world very hard, which obviously included LeBron James. James didn’t even want to believe that it was true at first and he later said that the week following Bryant’s death was the toughest of his life.

The two bonded as teammates at the Olympics on two separate occasions and developed a great friendship while also always maintaining that competitive spirit when they faced one another on the court. Ahead of the Lakers’ first game back following Kobe’s death, LeBron gave an impassioned speech to the crowd at Staples Center (video above), saying that Laker Nation was like a family and that he was truly blown away by how everyone had bonded together following this tragedy. Naturally, LeBron spoke on his own relationship with Kobe as well.

“Kobe is a brother to me, and from the time I was in high school watching him from afar, to getting in this league at 18, watching him up close, all the battles that we had throughout my career, the one thing that we always shared was that determination to just want to win and just want to be great. And the fact that I’m here now means so much to me. I want to continue along with my teammates to continue his legacy, not only for this year but as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”

LeBron James on Kobe Bryant

Continuing Kobe Bryant’s legacy is obviously important to LeBron James but it’s unfair to saddle him, or anyone else on the Lakers for that matter, with winning an NBA title to honor him.

The Lakers don’t have to win the NBA title to honor Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant LeBron James Lakers
LeBron James honors Kobe Bryant | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

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Soon after the death of Kobe Bryant, talk began about how LeBron James and the Lakers just HAD to win an NBA championship to honor Kobe Bryant, which is absolutely absurd. Would it make for a great story? Well, of course it would. If LeBron throws up a prayer in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win the game and it magically goes in, every sportswriter in the world will say that Kobe guided it in from the heavens.

But if that same shot misses, there are certainly plenty of Lakers fans out there that would still say something along the lines of “Kobe would’ve made that” and that’s just completely unfair. It’s one of a few no-win situations LeBron finds himself in as the Lakers prepare to resume their season.

So what happens if LeBron and the Lakers don’t win the NBA title? Did they fail to honor Kobe Bryant? Absolutely not. Bryant’s legacy is just fine on its own and if LA never wins another championship, that isn’t going to change.

LeBron James and every member of this Lakers roster has entered the bubble hoping to win an NBA title. But that simply might not happen. There are plenty of great teams in Orlando that have the same ambitions. And even if LA does win the NBA Finals, does it change the fact that Kobe is still gone?

No, it doesn’t.

But if the Lakers lose at any point during these playoffs, LeBron James, as he’s done throughout his career, will take the heat. And if he goes out and doesn’t play as hard as he possibly can, then some of the criticism might be warranted. But we all know that won’t be the case. He’ll go out each and every night and compete to the best of his ability. And isn’t that what the Mamba Mentality was really all about?