The Lakers' harsh truth: LeBron is no longer the best, most durable player in the world

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

Take One: LeBron James bit off more than he can chew

Coaching gripes, trade-deadline drama, low-effort defense, a lack of urgency, embarrassing blowouts — the Los Angeles Lakers have had it all, but so did LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

He takes the hard path and then makes it harder — remember when he subtweeted Kevin Love? — because he couldn’t just live out just any story. It had to be his story, so he leverages the power of his talent to remake franchises in his own image.

It’s not entitlement as much as it’s rational opportunism. Like any corporate hotshot, the world’s best player can run up a bloated bar tab — he can take off possessions and brazenly want his team to trade for Anthony Davis — as long as he closes it with a championship. We all have a right to reap what we are worth.

In his 16th season, LeBron James is finally slowing down. (Getty)
In his 16th season, LeBron James is finally slowing down. (Getty)

But this season, the books stopped adding up. The Lakers, 30-31 after beating the Pelicans on Wednesday night, have a 22 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model. LeBron can no longer do as he pleases and muster a Finals run at the same time. Not in the West. Not in Year 16. He is not the sole reason for the malaise — the Lakers, after all, are 6-12 without him — but it could be eliminated if not for this: LeBron is no longer the best, most durable player in the world. If he were, the Lakers would be firmly in playoff position, and every schism would be water under the bridge.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

But he isn’t and they’re not, and LeBron has reacted by going full baby boomer, trying to build an empire on a faulty foundation and blaming the kids for the walls crumbling down. He has wondered out loud if his teammates are too comfortable with losing, while his defensive lowlight reels rack up online. On Saturday, basketball’s most dynamic mogul so richly pontificated: “Basketball, is that the most important thing while we’re doing this? Is it the most important thing in your life at this time? If you feel like you’re giving it all to the game, then you can do other things. But if you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else. That’s just … my personal take.”

The Lakers’ young talent has been on trial all season. But now the onus is on LeBron. He’ll either prove he is worth all the trouble and carry the Lakers to the playoffs or be forced to adjust to a world that will stop bending to his every will — or, in other words, age gracefully.

Take Two: Dwyane Wade’s game-winner against the Warriors echoed his best qualities

It’s one thing to live out a dream. It’s another to relive its greatest highlight, and then to relive it again on the same day a year later, as though Feb. 27 were made to be a break in the cycle of human activity, a day meant only for Dwyane Wade to perch himself onto the same platform in front of the same fans at American Airlines Arena, and scream, “This is my house!”

Unlikely? Yep. Somehow fitting? Totally. That’s why it was vintage D-Wade. Think about what you’ll remember. Sure, watching him climb the ladder and posterize men a foot taller than him was cool. Flash was cool.

But the hallmark of Wade’s career will be the improbability of his greatest moments, when fate or situation or bodily stress would make you think he couldn’t possibly muster this one in, like the running 20-footer that beat Chicago; the time he accidentally dropped the ball, picked it up and nailed a three to beat the Nets; the forward-leaning jumper he hit after bumping into Paul George and trying to draw a foul. Those were the moments that made luck seem like a non-perishable resource belonging only to him, cultivating a feeling that if he could not finesse a win, he would will it.

And that’s what happened against the Warriors. First, he bobbled the ball in the lane and nearly lost it before pitching it back to Dion Waiters. Then Jordan Bell lurched to the 3-point line and blocked him, smashing the ball right back into Wade’s hands. The next part, like so much of Wade’s career, defies explanation.

Take Three: The Otto Porter Jr. trade unlocked Lauri Markkanen’s game

On deadline day, the Bulls traded Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis and a protected 2023 second-round draft pick to the Wizards for Otto Porter Jr., Washington’s spindly swingman with a contract few teams wanted. But the Bulls — who won’t be attracting free agents any time soon — did, and they’re benefiting on multiple levels.

There’s Porter himself — 18.1 points on 51.5 percent 3-point shooting — and then there are the minutes and angles the trade has etched out for Lauri Markkanen to play alongside him. Markkanen, a 7-foot marksman from Finland, has drawn inevitable comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s really the big-man proxy for Klay Thompson, one of the league’s most elite context-driven players: the better the team, the more effective he is.

And since trading for Porter, the rebuilding Bulls have gone 5-4. While each win hurts the chances of getting Zion Williamson, it gives them a window into a more certain future: The No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft has averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds in February.

Markkanen is a dead-eye shooter with a quick, nearly unblockable release. He catches and shoots six threes per game and connects on 39.6 percent of them — numbers that force opponents to stick to him like glue. Most shooters are more effective when the scouting report catches up to them. Reputation beats percentages. But before Porter’s arrival, Markkanen’s teammates weren’t capitalizing on the space he created.

Switching to diffuse picks set by Markkanen was non-negotiable for opponents, because his teammates weren’t likely to punish mismatches. But the trade opened up the floor for Zach LaVine and gave Chicago a semi-dynamic scorer in Porter. Now teams play Markkanen’s picks more honestly, and as a result, his dynamism is shining. He’s a menace on the pop, with a quick release and a developing pump-fake. On the roll, he glides around the paint with explosion, instinct, respectable ball-handling skills and a shooter’s touch. And the better Chicago gets, the better he’ll get.

Take Four: The MVP is slipping out of James Harden’s hands. That’s great for Houston

In the last 10 games, Giannis Antetokounmpo has averaged 29.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists, prying the MVP from Harden. Antetokounmpo’s case is ironclad: The Bucks’ system is an outgrowth of his abilities, and they’ve barreled to the rim to the tune of the NBA’s best record.

Factor in voter fatigue and likability, and the gap becomes considerable. Despite publicly advocating for the award, Harden actually doesn’t seem intent on closing it.

After scoring 30 or more points for 32 consecutive games, Harden’s streak ended Monday against the Atlanta Hawks. It was his second game sharing the floor with Clint Capela (who, by the way, makes more shots at the restricted area outside of anyone not named Giannis) after the big man’s return from injury. Chris Paul is back, too, and they’re sharing the burden.

The shift couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Houston. After barely staying afloat in January, the Rockets are outscoring opponents by six points per 100 possessions. Defensively, they’re engaged, perhaps none more than — you heard it right — Harden, who leads the NBA in deflections and remains a steel trap on switches.

Since Michael Jordan’s retirement, only five players have added the MVP and the Larry O’Brien Trophy to their hardware collections in the same season. At this point in the season, Harden should only be concerned about filling up the cup and making a push for the latter.

Take Five: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Of all the crooked tricks and inefficiencies James Harden has manipulated to get free points at the line, few are as dreaded — as indecent, really — as the arm lock, in which a player will cradle the ball with one hand and lock arms with his defender with the other, literally forcing his opponent to bump him around.

The malaise, according to hard science, is spreading. Within a few minutes of each other on Monday night, in separate arenas, two players pulled one over on the refs in critical moments.

Down one with 17 seconds to go against the Miami Heat, Phoenix’s Devin Booker saw Josh Richardson attempting to steal an inbounds pass headed his way, snuck his arm through Richardson’s armpit and then fell to the floor, making it look like Richardson reached in on the steal and pushed over Booker. The Heat were in the penalty, so Booker got to ice the game at the free-throw line.

Then, with the Lakers trailing the Grizzlies by two points in the final minute, Mike Conley drove to the rim against L.A.’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, latched onto his arm, and threw up a wild floater that grazed the side of the rim and drew a whistle. Memphis extended its lead to four and eventually won the game.

Call it an art if you insist, but it’s an ugly one.

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