LeBron James’ All-Star Game Experience Is a Painful Reminder of ‘What If?’

LeBron James‘ 2021-22 season has been marred by an underperforming Los Angeles Lakers squad. But there are at least a couple of positives to glean from his 19th season.

First, the King is still as dominant as ever despite being 37 years old. If it wasn’t for LA’s 27-31 record, he’d undoubtedly receive more MVP consideration. The second positive comes from the King returning to Cleveland for his 18th All-Star Game and leading his squad to a fifth consecutive victory.

LeBron was the lone Laker in the game, as superstar teammates Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook watched the festivities from home. Yet he still had a great time playing alongside Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan, which served as a painful reminder for many Lakers fans who envisioned the two wearing Purple and Gold together.

LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan were All-Star teammates

Serving as All-Star captain for the fifth time, James built a tremendous starting lineup for his return to Cleveland. The King added three former MVPs — Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic — in an attempt to defeat Kevin Durant’s impressive All-Star squad. He also selected DeRozan, arguably the biggest surprise of the NBA season.

DeRozan’s three-year, $82 million contract with Chicago was widely viewed as an overpayment. Despite averaging 21.6 points in his final season with the San Antonio Spurs, the 32-year-old wasn’t able to make an All-Star team since 2018. Along with not being a three-point shooter in a three-point era, many wondered if Deebo would also be able to mesh with Zach LaVine, Chicago’s high-scoring, ball-dominant guard.

As it turns out, DeRozan could play with LaVine. He could score without relying on the three, and he could live up to his lofty contract. And Sunday, he made a well-deserved return to the All-Star Game as a member of Team LeBron.

With 23 games left to go, DeRozan is averaging a career-high 28.1 points on 51.7% shooting. For context, he’s only averaged above 23.5 points one other time, when he scored 27.3 points a game in 2016-17 for the Toronto Raptors. And thanks to DeRozan, the Bulls have overcome a glut of injuries to sit 38-21, tied with the Miami Heat for the top record in the Eastern Conference.

DeRozan, who led all Eastern Conference guards in votes from fans, players, and media members, finished his fifth All-Star Game with 10 points and five assists in a little under 27 minutes. Meanwhile, James had 24 points including the game-winning shot in Team LeBron’s thrilling 163-160 victory.

Sunday was a reminder that LeBron and the Lakers foolishly chose Russell Westbrook over DeRozan

As James and DeRozan exited the court as winners, Lakers fans watching from home felt like losers.

The Purple and Gold went into the offseason with a clear goal: Find a third star to partner with LeBron and AD. One possibility was DeRozan, who was on the outs in San Antonio and available for a reasonable price. There was mutual interest between Deebo and the Lake Show, with the veteran even telling Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports in November that he believed LA was going to be his next destination.

“I felt like going to the Lakers was a done deal and that we were going to figure it out. I was going to come home,” DeRozan, who’s from Compton, CA, told Haynes. “The business side of things just didn’t work out. A couple of things didn’t align. It didn’t work out.”

As it turns out, LA wanted to conduct business with the Washington Wizards instead. Rather than working out a sign-and-trade with San Antonio, the Lakers shifted their attention to Westbrook, eventually acquiring the former MVP for a package centered around Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

After LA moved on from DeRozan, the former USC Trojan pivoted to the Bulls. Now, after an eventful All-Star break, Chicago is in the mix to win the East, while Westbrook and the Lakers are barely clinging onto a spot in the play-in round.

It’s bad enough LeBron steered the Lakers toward Westbrook over DeRozan. It also hurts seeing how far apart the two vets are in terms of overall production. Not to mention, Westbrook’s $44 million this year and $47 million player option next year is more than the entirety of DeRozan’s three-year deal.

The Lakers would be in much better shape if they acquired DeRozan instead of Westbrook

If it wasn’t obvious already, it became obvious after seeing DeRozan in the All-Star Game instead of Westbrook. LA butchered its offseason and cost itself a shot at a title.

It’s not as if Westbrook is playing significantly worse than in years past. While his 18.3 points and 7.5 assists are lower due to sharing the ball with LeBron, Russ’ field-goal rate of 43.7% and 4.1 turnovers per game are identical to his 14-year career average. The issue simply lies within his fit.

Westbrook has taken poor shots at poor moments all season, costing LA in big spots late in games. He takes threes and misses most of them, shooting 29.9% on 3.5 attempts per game. And his refusal to change has prevented the Lakers from turning their increasingly-hopeless season around.

Meanwhile, DeRozan has been the definition of clutch. He’s hit big shots while also playing alongside another big-time scorer in LaVine. He takes just 1.8 threes a game, tied for the third-most in his career, but is actually hitting 34.3% of them. All for a new coach and new team, just like Russ.

Not only would DeRozan have been a much better partner for James and Davis, but he also would’ve allowed the Lakers to build up their thin roster. LA could’ve either kept its depth like Kuzma and Alex Caruso, replaced them with new role players, or pulled off a trade for sharpshooter Buddy Hield. If they opted for the latter, the Lakers’ core of LeBron, AD, DeRozan, and Hield would very likely place them among the West’s elite teams.

Instead, the Purple and Gold chose Westbrook. And after seeing LeBron and DeRozan flourish together in the NBA’s midseason classic, they should regret their ill-fated decision more with each passing day.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

RELATED: Stephen A. Smith Criticizes LeBron James for Potential Rob Pelinka Dig