by Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA writer
juxtaposition between LeBron Jameswords a few months ago and what he said on Monday were stark.
In September, he sat down to speak with reporters on a media day full of hope. Talk about the greatness of Russell Westbrook. He was interested in chemistry with Anthony Davis. He has ridiculed any concerns about the Los Angeles Lakers’ senior roster. He was full of enthusiasm about a team that exceeded the expectations of the championship.
“I’m so excited,” James said then, adding that he could barely sleep. “I’ve been up since 5:30 this morning.”
Fast forward to Monday, the day after one of the most disappointing seasons in NBA history ended. James’ face was long. His tone was faint. He has suffered from numerous nights of insomnia over the past 215 days – but for a completely different reason.
“If you follow me in any of my careers, and when we don’t succeed, I take on a lot of responsibility,” James said in his exit interview. “That’s just who I am. I hope to be a lot better at the helm of this franchise this year. I wish I could be in a lot more uniform than I was. I’ve played in 56 games, I think it was. .It wasn’t fun at all, as I was sitting on the sidelines, realizing that you can make a difference and you won’t be able to do it. I hope to be a lot better with that next year.”
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This Lakers season has been a train wreck of epic proportions.
They were favorites to win the title but missed the NBA championship play, as they finished 11th in the Western Conference with a record 33-49. Westbrook was a disappointment. Davis was injured. James played MVP-caliber basketball, but it became clear that at the age of 37, he could no longer single-handedly carry a team on the ankle, knee and thigh.
This season’s fallout has already begun, unfolding in an ugly and surprising way that underscores the biggest dysfunction of one of the league’s most iconic franchises.
Frank Vogel was officially fired on Monday, but he learned the news Sunday from an ESPN reporter’s tweet moments after leading the team to an unlikely comeback against the Denver Nuggets without James, Davis, Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony.
The Lakers leaked the news, implying that the championship winning coach had to know his fate at the same time as the rest of the world, and moments later, he had to discuss the matter with a room full of reporters.
This is not a good look for a team that somehow needs to attract a new coach. Who’s going to defend that party now?
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GM Rob Pelinka had a chance to take responsibility for the disaster when he spoke to reporters on Monday afternoon. Instead, he played dribbling ball.
“We do not respond to media reports without sources,” Pelinka said. “And in terms of the timing of that decision, we’ll keep that internally.”
James showed some support for Vogel, saying, “I got nothing but respect for him.” When asked if he had a problem with the way the news came, he replied, “I can only control what I can control.”
However, Westbrook admitted that his relationship with Vogel never worked out. He said that when he arrived in Los Angeles, he sent a bottle of champagne to Vogel and his wife to celebrate the anniversary, but this gesture did not have the desired effect.
“I never, right from the start, felt like I did. [we were on the same page]’ said Westbrook. I had to try to prove myself to him and my abilities and what I was able to do for this game. “
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That’s for sure: It’s going to be a long, tumultuous off-season for the Lakers.
When Pelinka was asked who he sees leading the Lakers next, he said someone has a “strong voice”. Sure, a solid sound, but also thick leather and a bit of a masochistic streak.
And the search for training is just one of the many things the Lakers need to find out. Another question: What are they going to do about Westbrook and the $47 million he owes next season?
Bilinka said that first and foremost, Westbrook has a decision to make because he has a player option. But he added, “We will look under every stone for ways to be better.”
As for Westbrook, he has been candid in pursuing one of the most challenging seasons of his career. According to him, he was never given a “fair chance”. When asked what it means, he said, “From top to bottom. Just every side.”
Westbrook said some stories in the media created false drama and portrayed him in a negative light. He claimed that Vogel had a problem with him. He even said that James and Davis’ slogan “Let it be Ross Ross” was a blank slate.
As for his future plans, he is not sure yet.
“I will make the decision,” he said. “That’s why it’s called player choice.”
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A lot has gone wrong with this team. They had 41 different starting lineups, something James repeated aloud on Monday, stunned. Kendrick Nunn hasn’t played any single game. The stars are affected by injuries.
James was sidelined in 26 games, and Davis missed 42, which means that James, Davis and Westbrook have played in just 21 games together. They went 11-10. Other teams with less talent – teams that did not have five future Hall of Famers – also suffered from injuries but made the playoffs.
However, James emphasized that maybe, just maybe, this team could have done well.
“At the end of the day, the reason we weren’t so good together is because we weren’t down to earth together,” he said. “That’s the first thing. I don’t know – you know – how many games have we played together? We’ve played 21 games. That’s a quarter of the season. Less than a quarter of the season. So I can t even [analyze it]. I played more matches with my high school mates in one season, and we only played 27 games, okay? So here it is.”
However, Bilinka several times admitted that the list “did not work.”
He took responsibility for that, and rightfully so, considering he replaced all the key players from the 2020 Championship squad to get the inconsistent Westbrook.
For the next steps, Pelinka keep those close to the jacket. James admitted that the Lakers need help everywhere, both in attack and defense, having finished 22nd and 21st out of the league’s 30 teams, respectively.
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Perhaps the saddest part of this disaster was the loss of one of James’ last seasons.
He could have been a contender for the best player if his team had been better. He averaged 30.3 points in his 19th season and could have won the scoring title if he hadn’t missed the team’s last five games with an ankle injury. When asked if it bothered him that he didn’t win that award in the least, she blinked.
“Going after the scoring title when you’re not in the post-season is the weirdest thing of all,” James said.
But playing in those games wasn’t an option anyway.
On Friday, an MRI of James’ ankle revealed that he did not need surgery but that he needed to be off his feet for four to six weeks. He has admitted that playing against New Orleans on April 1 – when the Lakers were still looking to play – would likely make the injury worse, but is confident he will make a full recovery.
He also vowed on Monday that the team will make a better comeback next season. He confirmed that he is still hungry for more championships. As for the off-season, he joked that he intends to work on cheating the umpires so he can get to the free-throw line more.
But, of course, the bigger question is whether James will sign a contract extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent beyond next season. At the moment, he declined to comment on his future with the team as it would be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
But Pelinka expressed confidence that James would remain in the Lakers uniform.
“Every indication we have is that he considers the Lakers his home,” Pelinka said.
But James’ window closes. He needs help. The fact that this team missed the playoffs is unacceptable. This season has been a disaster for a proud franchise.
And for James, it was quite frustrating, in marked contrast to his unbridled enthusiasm just seven months earlier.
“Winning is everything to me,” he said on Monday. “And the fact that I was playing the way I was playing and it wasn’t leading to wins – it just wasn’t enough.”
Pelinka knows he needs to find a way to change that. He needs to put the right pieces on James now – or else.
“The Lakers’ success accounts are very twofold,” he said. “Either we win a championship, or we don’t. There are no gold stars in the middle, there is no bid. This year we failed in that mission.”
They just didn’t fail.
They have collapsed.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Times, Bay Area News Group, and San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.
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