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What’s next for LeBron James?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James gestures after making a basket against the Chicago Bulls during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Chicago.   | Photo Credit: AP

After a period of intense speculation, LeBron James left Cleveland Cavaliers to join Los Angeles Lakers for the 2018-19 NBA season. He was courted by the legendary Magic Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations, who signed him on a four-year, $153.3 million contract. With Kobe Bryant’s storied 20-year Lakers career having come to an end two years earlier, the franchise needed a new marquee name. Who better than LeBron — the sport’s biggest star — to fill the role?

It seemed a perfect fit. LeBron, the poster boy of a revered basketball institution, revelling in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. But these were just superficial perks. LeBron came to the home of ‘Showtime’ to win basketball games. The Lakers demanded it, and so did LeBron.

Off the rails

Fast forward to the final stretch of the regular season, and things have not gone to plan. The Lakers have failed to qualify for the playoffs for a sixth straight season, and for the first time since 2005, the knockout stage will not feature LeBron in action. While nobody expected LeBron to carry the struggling team to an NBA title, the failure to reach the playoffs — a fairly realistic target — has come as a shock.

The slide began on Christmas Day last year, when LeBron suffered an injury in a match against the Golden State Warriors. A strained left groin forced him out of the next 17 games. In his absence, the Lakers slipped from a comfortable fourth in the Western Conference standings to ninth. The side played catch-up after LeBron returned, but fell well short in the end.

Injury worries

Injuries to three other key team members — Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram — only made a bad situation worse.

Even if the Lakers had remained injury-free, they may not have had enough firepower to make an impact. Rondo is a street-smart point guard, Ball is an expert passer, Ingram is a bright young forward, Josh Hart leads the pack in defence, and Kyle Kuzma can be an effective scorer. But none of them have that ‘It’ factor — the ability to regularly take over and single-handedly win a game.

When LeBron claimed back-to-back titles with Miami Heat, he had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in his corner. He delivered the one-two punch alongside Kyrie Irving to power the Cavaliers to the 2015-16 title. Even the great Michael Jordan needed assistance — in the form of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman — to scale the peaks that he did, and LeBron is no different.

The role of Lakers coach Luke Walton has also come under the scanner. Walton’s three-year stint at Los Angeles has produced a disappointing 93-144 losing record, leaving his job on the line.

The way forward

So how can LeBron and the Lakers get back on track? For starters, the team management — led by Magic Johnson — has to add a potent offensive weapon to the armoury. The market has first-rate options, with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant of the Warriors, and Kawhi Leonard of Toronto Raptors set to enter free agency. LeBron — an unselfish player, who is quite happy to see teammates top the scoring charts — will thrive with shooting guard Thompson knocking down three-pointers. Small forward Durant and forward Leonard will bring countless scoring options to the table.

There are, however, a few hurdles that lie ahead. In LeBron, the Lakers have a larger-than-life figure who grabs the headlines with every move he makes. In this scenario, it is tough for the franchise to convince the likes of Thompson, Durant and Leonard — big names in their own right — to play second fiddle to LeBron.

Evolution

At 34, LeBron no longer has the energy to chase down every opposing fast-break. At times, he hasn’t even made the effort to run back and join his teammates.

There is talk of limiting LeBron’s playing time for the rest of the season and avoiding back-to-back outings. He is likely to shift his focus to shooting — with more jump shots and three-point attempts — rather than take bumps with aggressive drives.

But all is not lost. LeBron still is the best player in the world, powered by a sharp basketball IQ that is unmatched in the league. He has averaged a commendable 27.4 points and 8.2 assists this season, proving that he has plenty left in the tank. If the Lakers — with inputs from LeBron — can find the right pieces to fit this puzzle, their fortunes can change.

“LeBron is not a guy who is accustomed to losing,” his former teammate Wade told an American magazine recently. No one can dispute that, and only a brave man will bet against the three-time NBA champion and 15-time All-Star overcoming this setback.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 5:15:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/whats-next-for-lebron-james/article26680768.ece

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