Every basketball team has a clear hierarchy of talent with a leader who is required to give direction on defense and offense and to act as the clutch option at the end of games. Anyone in the NBA can score 25 points on a given night, but some players handle pressure without hesitation, and can score and defend with more ease and consistency than others. The most talented or poised player is often the team leader, and if you’ve reached the talent level of LeBron James, you can even become a team manager.
Where franchises now depend on assembling a “big three” group, three players with enough talent and star power are expected to lead a team to relevance. This trend began in 2010, when Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James teamed up on the Miami Heat. For James’ teams, this recruiting process has continued ever since. After a huge mid-season switch up in Cleveland and a mediocre start to the season this year, LeBron has made it his mission to recruit Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mid-season recruiting tactics generate incredible media attention. However, as these last few weeks have proved, the Lakers are more concerned with chasing superstars to satisfy LeBron than with developing their young talents, and I am beginning to question his leadership tactics.
At first, Lebron’s decision to play for this young Lakers team appeared to be a humble career move. They had just missed the playoffs, and their championship potential was at least three seasons away. There was no clear leader until James came through the door. I assumed that the trade demonstrated a desire to remain patient and play a few seasons to develop young talent before winning another title.
Now in mid-season, the Lakers have offered five young, talented players — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac, and Kontavious Caldwell-Pope — in addition to two first round picks, to the New Orleans Pelicans in return for Anthony Davis, a top-three NBA player. This one is really easy to spell out. LeBron and Davis share the same agent, and after their game on December 22, they had dinner together. A couple of weeks later, Davis openly said that he wanted a trade and that his preferred destination was the Lakers.
Lebron recently returned to the Lakers following a groin injury that ended up being the longest injury setback of his career. The injury occurred on December 25, and he did not return to the court until January 31. American sports analyst Chris Broussard explained that James’ absence exposed the team’s lack of potential without their superstar. He added that the five week absence showed that, for the Lakers, “This is what [they] have, and if [they] want to win a championship, then [they] better go get more.” Of the first 10 games without LeBron, the team won three.
Sports columnist Skip Bayless responded to Broussard by saying that LeBron may have intentionally perpetuated a narrative that his team is not strong enough in order to increase the organization’s dependence on him.
I believe LeBron’s lengthy absence may have been a way to let his young teammates play on their own to boost their trade value. LeBron clearly knew the team would need a big change. So does he really appreciate Ingram, Ball, and Kuzma? Perhaps not enough to form a tight-knit, committed team culture.
We now know that the Lakers did not land Anthony Davis by the February 7 trade deadline. If they make the playoffs, LeBron will once again be talked about as the player who somehow lifted a bunch of solid, but not great, young players to success — a narrative he is happy with bearing.
But let’s consider the feelings of the younger Lakers. Their leader has sat out for an extended time, and now there has been a call to send about one third of the team and future draft picks to the Pelicans.
For the past 10 days, Lakers players have had to come into work not knowing whether they would be in the same workplace the next week. This is an uncomfortable reality for NBA players that is often dismissed as a ‘part of the business.’
But what if you knew that your team leader had a say in all of these decisions? Nearly every Laker knows they are trade options, and that, together, they have less value than a single player — Anthony Davis.
All along, the ball has been in the Pelicans’ court. They have Davis and will not move him unless they are completely satisfied with a struck deal. So what happens when they can’t make a deal? The Lakers end up being forced to play the next half of their NBA season knowing that their leader would have rather sent them packing.
Hours before the trade deadline, knowing that Davis would not be a Laker this season, LeBron was already working hard to once again change the narrative.
Harrison Barnes was traded mid game on Wednesday night from the Dallas Mavericks to the Sacramento Kings, and James was quick to make an Instagram post condemning this move as disrespectful to Barnes. In the meantime, he has helped shop nearly half of his team.
On Saturday morning, he said, “The suspense and the excitement around the trade deadline is always… pretty crazy.” He added, “There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake… There’s nothing I’m chasing for.”
While LeBron claims that he’s not pushing for anything, the drama is completely regular for LeBron’s teams. Of course he is pushing for something; he wants more rings. He’s LeBron James, after all.
Now that his plan has failed, James won’t let the public believe that he was in charge of the Davis pursuit. He’s a master at handling the media and controlling the narrative. After his routine mid-season trade push got the team nowhere, only time will tell if he’s still respected in the locker room.