Playoffs

LeBron James and the Lakers avoid a first-round sweep, but the clock is ticking in L.A.

LeBron James and the Lakers avoid a first-round sweep, but the clock is ticking in L.A.

LOS ANGELES — The music blared at full volume, the patrons at Crypto.com Arena sang “I Love LA” cathartically at the buzzer.

Ding, dong, the witch is dead — the 11-game losing streak the Lakers had to the Denver Nuggets is over.

Then longtime Lakers PA man Lawrence Tanter’s baritone voice issued the reality of the moment, dulling the joy.

“The series is three games to one.”

The inevitable is delayed for only a couple days, maybe a bit longer if the Nuggets continue their streak of missing open jump shots and playing with their Laker food.

But whenever it ends, the age-old question remains for the grand old man of the NBA, LeBron James:

What do you do with him?

His greatness demands a level of urgency, and his age adds more. He was spry on Saturday in Game 4, leading the Lakers in scoring with 30 points, along with five rebounds and four assists in the 119-108 win. Anthony Davis drove the winning, with 25 points, 23 rebounds and six assists, staying upright in his matchup with Nikola Jokić. James influenced it.

Reaching excellence is impossible to achieve every night, which complicates matters when having championship expectations for a championship franchise.

Two nights before, James was asked about the rival du jour, the peerless Jokić and these Nuggets, and where they ranked in terms of rivals he’s faced over his 21-year career.

“It’s too hard for me to answer that question right now,” James said. “This team is well-equipped, well-prepared, well-coached. They do not have a weakness offensively. They have shotmakers, playmakers. You always try to keep them at bay. It’s one of the better teams I’ve played in my career."

James doesn’t really have individual rivalries, as much as he has them with franchises and systems. Players alone rarely could combat James’ singular abilities, but when paired with peers, and adding sweat equity, they could exceed whatever James brought to the table.

Whatever iteration Tim Duncan came at you with when he was with the Spurs. Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Boston Celtics. And now, these Nuggets.

That’s because James is the franchise. You know the drill. Co-stars will be scrutinized, role players will be both elevated and blamed — see D’Angelo Russell. Coaches will be put through the ringer. It’s drama, high-maintenance, unreasonable expectations, but there are trips to June almost every time, like an annual vacation for a married couple.

But James and June have been divorced for quite a long time. We were just led to believe they were temporarily separated, somehow bound to reunite after spending a little time apart.

June has belonged to others over James’ career, sometimes many times, and this go round, Jokić seems to have a date ready — so long as his teammates bring a game along with them over the next couple months.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James takes a rest on the court during the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Saturday, April 27, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

James, the franchise, will perhaps go through another dance this summer with the Lakers, as he can decline a player option and become a free agent. And the Lakers have to look around at the changing landscape of the NBA and soberly determine how they can build around James — which has always been a herculean task of sorts.

Can he, turning 40 in December, be counted on to be a team’s best player, its singular driving force, its greatest driver of winning, and that team have realistic title expectations? Or be someone who can influence winning?

Not that it seems likely that he leaves, but consider the way the Lakers must think:

If he left Cleveland in an unprecedented manner, spurning his home region, why wouldn’t he leave you?

If he left Miami, the place that turned him into a complete player, a made man and a two-time champion, the place that married player and franchise, why would he stay with you?

If he left Cleveland again, after helping deliver the most improbable of titles, what would stop him from seeking partnership elsewhere?

The league has gotten too good, and perhaps James too old, to replicate the Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead formula of "F*** them (draft) picks": “Les Snead, legend! My type of guy!” James tweeted after the Rams won the Super Bowl a couple years back.

The Rams went seven straight years without a first-round draft pick before breaking the streak a couple days ago. But the rewards of such audacity are not guaranteed.

Being with James is the equivalent of speed dating. Quick trial, quick judge, quick dismissal. Other relationships around the league have simmered, gone through growing pains, rode the wave, and been better for it.

Could James have listened to an organization if it told him Jamal Murray’s 18-month-plus comeback from a knee injury would bear fruit, or to have faith in Michael Porter Jr.’s flagged back?

Or would he have urged the franchise to cut bait, get someone in who probably wasn’t as talented, wasn’t as young but could contribute in a hurry?

We all know the likely answer.

There’s no conventional way to build a contender anymore, almost all of them have disparate blueprints that have brought the likes of the Nuggets, Thunder, Timberwolves and Celtics to favored status today, which means the Lakers would have to sell James on a path unseen and uncharted to satisfy him in these latter years.

James’ basketball IQ is nonpareil, which creates a layer of urgency and pressure.

The duality of James means he's usually right (sometimes notably wrong), but can he be convinced that being right isn’t always what’s best?

There’s a sweet spot between patience and pressure. The Warriors believed they had time on their side following Kevin Durant’s departure, but didn’t make optimal use of the draft capital acquired. Now they’re in a spot where, despite the 2022 triumph, they’re scrambling to make the best usage of Curry’s career.

Curry didn’t openly lobby or manipulate the situation, and luckily it worked out, but one wonders how it would’ve looked if he did apply a little public force.

It would never happen, but the best thing for both parties would be a Durant-Warriors reunion, running that old thing back as an elderly couple this time around.

There doesn’t seem to be a similar life raft for James right now, but he always seems to place himself in advantageous situations. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, most believed he was setting himself up for a post-basketball career, aligning himself with movers and shakers while leaving the winning behind to those who were laser-focused on it.

One Anthony Davis acquisition later, and they were back in the fast lane, winning the 2020 title in the Orlando bubble.

Is a star around the corner that could give James yet another basketball life? The league stands to go through an interesting summer, with more on the line for franchises and players in these playoffs than meets the eye.

What happens with Donovan Mitchell and Cleveland, if the Cavs bow out again in the first round? Atlanta’s Trae Young is a fellow Klutch Sports client with James, and it seems more and more likely Young and the Hawks could separate this offseason.

If so, is he a perfect fit?

Is anyone?

What we do know is that while the clock is ticking on his career, it ticks faster and louder for any team that employs him. And even if he seemingly can make time stop on occasion, a team can’t.

“The only opportunity for us is to win the next game. We’ve given ourselves a lifeline,” James said Saturday night after the win. “It’s a one-game series for us. Monday’s game is the most important game of the season for us. You lose, you’re done. You win, you keep going.”

Tick, tick, tick.

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