LeBron James might have reached his limit. A dispirited James scored 25 points on 9-of-23 shooting on Jan. 15 as the Denver Nuggets demolished the Los Angeles Lakers 133–96. The loss dropped the Lakers to 21–22 and ran their losing streak to three games on the heels of four consecutive victories.
It’s the second-worst loss of the James era in LA and just the 20th loss by at least 37 points in franchise history. Denver blitzed the Lakers, outscoring them 60–36 in the second half, and led by as much as 42 points. Any momentum from the four straight wins is gone. Worse, it appears the four-time NBA MVP is buckling under the weight of the disappointing season.
LeBron James often disengaged in the loss at Denver
Midway through the third quarter, Russell Westbrook attempted twice to drive against Denver forward Aaron Gordon. The most controversial of the new-look Lakers was denied not once but twice by Gordon. Westbrook took exception to the defensive intensity in a 19-point game and jawed at Gordon.
Lakers center DeAndre Jordan separated Westbrook and Gordon. But the video of the incident showed LeBron James on the perimeter of the scrum, hands on hips. Not precisely a vigorous defense of a teammate.
Of course, Westbrook (a) initiated all the contact with Gordon and (b) seemed genuinely surprised at an opponent exerting effort while on defense. Given Westbrook’s defense most of the season, the second part of that might be considered a natural response.
However, James allowed his frustration to show throughout the game. His head dropped regularly, and the effort of carrying a flawed team on his 37-year-old shoulders appears to be taking a toll.
James didn’t talk to the media after the blowout
In what might be the most unambiguous indication of LeBron James’ mounting frustration with the state of the Lakers, he did not talk to the media after the game.
Ryan Ward of Lakers Nation tweeted the news after the game while also indicating how rare it is for James not to speak.
James has battled through an abdominal injury this season but is scoring at the highest pace he has in more than a decade.
In his 19th season, James is scoring 28.9 points per game. That’s the most he’s scored since the last season of his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009–10 when he put up 29.7 points a night.
But he’s also shooting more than he has since 2007–08. The last time James averaged more than 20 shots a game was also in 2009–10. This season, his 20.8 attempts are the most he’s taken since averaging 21.9 shots in 2007–08.
James has missed 11 games due to injury and one while suspended this season. But in between, he’s averaged 36.7 minutes nightly. Only Karl Malone (38.0 minutes at age 38 in 2001–02) and Michael Jordan (37.0 minutes at age 39 in 2002–03) have averaged more at age 37 or older.
That sort of workload is a lot to ask of one of just three players with more than 60,000 minutes played (regular season and playoffs).
But there’s an important point to remember as James shows his frustration.
LeBron James played an active role in building the 2021–22 Lakers
The Lakers traded for Westbrook with the blessing of LeBron James. The King actively recruited Carmelo Anthony. LA has the oldest roster in the NBA, with an average of 31.0 years per player. Of the 22 players to appear in a game for the Lakers, 12 are 31 or older. And of the younger players, six of the 10 made fewer than 10 appearances.
Therefore, if James is unhappy with the Lakers, he shares some blame for their performance. Anthony Davis last played on Dec. 17 because of a sprained knee. The team hopes to get him back by the end of January. Without Davis, a poor defense got even worse.
The Lakers are 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 110.1. Since Davis’ injury, LA gives up 117.3 points per 100 possessions, 27th of 30 NBA teams over that span. It’s not a coincidence the Lakers are 5–8 in those games. One shudders to think how bad their record might be if their offense (113.4 points per 100 possession) hadn’t been so potent.
General manager Rob Pelinka gave James what he wanted in terms of personnel. So while LeBron James can be as frustrated as he chooses to, he also needs to own at least some of the responsibility for the uneven performance of the Lakers. By sacrificing athleticism for experience, LA is paying the price defensively. The Nuggets were just the latest beneficiary of that decision.