Legend has it, LeBron James has spent most of his G.O.A.T.-worthy career toeing the line between player and backroom controller. “Smiling faces with hidden agendas” and whatnot. Despite rumors, history and common sense asserting that LeBron has substantial influence on his teams, he has been reluctant to outwardly wield it. Now, with his Los Angeles Lakers in a state of bedlam, it’s time for LeBron to flex his muscle.
When Magic Johnson bounced in April, LeBron was left standing as the only person in the organization with experience winning anything in the NBA at a high level. Oh, wait, is that Kurt Rambis? Alright, one of two.
Rambis, with four championships as a player and two as an assistant coach, has built a career out of benefiting from the splashback of winning. But for all of the winning he got to sop up, he’s done a whole lot of losing since then as a head coach or executive. He’s in the red now.
Disappointing season notwithstanding, LeBron is not. LeBron went to eight-straight NBA Finals before this season. He has a proven ability to lead teams to greater heights than anyone the league has ever seen. His leadership style — which can be described as Machiavelli Logging Onto Twitter While Waiting For His Frappuccino — can be questioned, but it can’t be denied. More often than not, the ends justify the means.
Throughout his career, LeBron and the people around him have pushed back on assertions that he is anything more than one of 15.
“It’s not true at all,” former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told The Starters last year. “He doesn’t want to have that role. He doesn’t really want to do those things. He is obsessed with winning basketball games. What he wanted to do was lead the guys in the locker room and be as good as he can possibly be. He spends more time on his body and getting himself mentally and physically right than any player I’ve ever seen.
The reason people perceive that is because he was on one-year deals, because he is the best player of his generation, and the natural assumption is they won’t do anything to upset him. So if they do that, he must want that. The reality is there were several things we did because it was the right thing to do. And certainly I would go to him and ‘Listen, this is why we’re going to do that.’ Just as I did with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. … There was never a time where LeBron said ‘I want X, Y, Z.’”
In the past, he did so either in deference (for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat) or to avoid culpability (in Cleveland). Out of respect to those organizations, they were also run like the businesses they are. You know, with a structure, a plan.
This is different. LeBron, 34, chose to hitch his wagon to the Lakers by signing a four-year deal. More than likely, he’s stuck, and his team is without a paddle, let alone a 30-60-90. The thing resembles an episode of Succession more than a basketball team. Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka are more at home picking outfits at the Hollywood & Highland Center than basketball players. Neither knows how winning happens, just that sometimes it does. Buss was born into winning. Pelinka got 10 percent.
The one thing they did well was bring on two people in LeBron and Magic who have a history of creating winning. Then Magic had his awkward goodbye. Now LeBron is the only Lakers employee who can credibly turn the franchise around. Maybe Buss falls backward into it, but more likely not.
It starts with the front office. LeBron knows people. He knows people who could be capable general managers. He knows people who could be capable head coaches. If he tells the Lakers to offer his former coach Ty Lue five years instead of three, don’t you think they do it? He needs to point the front office in the right direction like showing J.R. Smith a shot clock for the first time.
The Lakers ended up hiring Frank Vogel and sticking Jason Kidd next to him on the bench. According to ESPN, Rambis and BAH GAWD IS THAT PHIL JACKSON’S MUSIC?! had significant influence in the hiring process. Again: why?
Vogel was the third coach the Lakers offered the job to. They were turned down by Lue, who preferred unemployment, and Monty Williams, who chose the hot mess in Phoenix over the hot mess in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, LeBron’s name hasn’t come up in reports about the search committee. He’s either not being asked, or is distancing himself publicly, as he always has.
It’s been floated over the last year that superstars don’t want to play with LeBron, that coaches fear coaching him and general managers fear building around him. It’s a tall order with little credit and a helluva lot of blame. LeBron can change that by becoming a partner.
The truth is, LeBron is great at choosing beneficial partnerships: Rich Paul, Liverpool, Dwyane Wade, Nike. He’s an incredible collaborator when selfishly invested. Throughout his career, there may not be a more appropriate time to be selfish, to throw the weight of his support behind capable leadership and turn the tides of the Lakers around. Not in a contrived way, like bringing Lonzo Ball onto a fake barbershop set. In a real way, like his relationship with Maverick Carter. An open and true partnership with LeBron will curb nerves about getting Blatted if things don’t work out.
If LeBron wants to win again and re-stake his claim as the NBA’s best player, it won’t be by distancing himself from the chaos, but holding it in his hand and molding into something more prosperous for everyone involved.
LeBron wanted to benefit from the glitz of the Lakers but instead, he’s suffering from its ineptitude. Talk Hollywood connections all you want, but hanging a banner at Staples would give LeBron something Michael Jordan doesn’t have in the G.O.A.T. debate: the rallying and conversation-bending endorsement of Lakers fans. Instead, after one season, those fans accuse him of not being enough of a ruthless winner like Kobe or propping up his teammates like Magic.
For LeBron to get the support from Lakers fans, he’ll have to turn around the team they love and riot for. Right now, they need each other.