LOS ANGELES – LeBron James’ second stint in Cleveland – the four NBA Finals appearances, the first championship in franchise history that snapped a 52-year title-less drought for the city — was an unabashed success.
But it came at a cost.
While James was brilliant in those postseason runs, he played 81 games in the playoffs – an entire extra regular season’s worth – in the last four years. When James left for Los Angeles, there were people within the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ organization that privately joked that “the tread is off his tires.”
And Sunday, before his former team beat the Los Angeles Lakers 101-95 at Staples Center in a game against the LeBron-less Lakers, a member of the Cavaliers told ESPN he thought last season “took a lot out of” the now 34-year-old James.
It stands to reason that James’ mileage was the motivating factor behind Lakers president Magic Johnson telling SiriusXM NBA Radio back in November that, “We are trying to make sure that we watch his minutes but also that we don’t run everything through him because now it is Cleveland all over again.”
In one sense, Magic has already assured that James’ time in L.A. will be nothing like it was with the Cavs. The Lakers constructed their roster around the four-time MVP in 2018 much differently than the Cavs that surrounded him in 2014. That Cleveland team was built on a star system – James, flanked by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – and then filled out with 3-point specialists that could feast off James’ ability to create.
These Lakers have James surrounded by a handful of hopeful stars – Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball – and a supporting cast full of players that can theoretically play both ways while also providing some playmaking.
Magic continued his interview by saying, “We want to get up and down.”
And this season, through 10 games without James since he strained his left groin on Christmas Day, the Lakers are just 3-7.
There have been some rough moments since James went out, but Sunday felt like a new low.
It’s one thing to blow a 15-point fourth quarter lead on the road against Sacramento, as the Lakers did in their first game sans James. It’s even one thing to dig a 17-point first quarter hole at home against the New York Knicks – a Knicks team that came into the game riding a nine-game losing streak – if you learn about respecting every opponent out of it.
But to lose to a Cavaliers team that came into the night with an 8-35 record and on a 12-game losing streak? To only score 95 points against a team that hasn’t held a team under 110 since Memphis on Dec. 26th? To shoot 7-for-34 from 3 (20.6 percent) and 16-for-27 on free throws (59.3 percent) on your home floor? It’s inexcusable.
“I believe in this group and I believe that this group will play better and we’ll start winning games,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said after a loss that drops the Lakers to 23-21, tied with the Utah Jazz for eighth in the West.
The fact that Walton even needed to say something like that was saying something, seeing as this group beat the Golden State Warriors on their home floor less than three weeks ago in a game it didn’t have James for most of the second half.
The Lakers are figuring out just how difficult life without James can be, just like the Cavs knew so well the last several years and continue to be cognizant of this season as they tank towards the lottery.
But here’s the biggest difference, perhaps, in what those Cavs teams experienced and where the Lakers are now: James has the wear and tear of all those seasons pushing and prodding and carrying the Cavs under his belt.
When he returns, what if he can’t carry this Lakers group – in a tougher Western Conference and comprised of potential stars alongside him rather than bonafide ones – the way he used to?
You see, Magic Johnson didn’t want L.A. to be Cleveland all over again because the plan was to have James’ teammates lift him up just as much as he lifts them up. So far that’s been anything but the case.