It was way back in the spring of 2010 when the issue of LeBron James’ leadership ability reached its rock bottom.
The Cavs were locked in a 2-2 second-round matchup with the Celtics, on their home floor with a chance to take control of the series. James, in a show of petulance and frustration with teammates, essentially took the game off, floating around the perimeter, making three out of 14 shot attempts and scoring just 15 points in a humiliating 32-point loss.
This was the best player in the world utterly forfeiting his leadership duties. James would leave for Miami two months later, and in the near decade since, he has evolved as both a player and a leader. During his last stint in Cleveland, James had a way of helping foment some controversy or other, placing blame on someone else — the coach, the front office, teammates — and watching the team rally when things counted most.
He’s been trying that now in his first season with the Lakers, a group rife with young and inexperienced players. But it’s not working. So, once again, questions about the quality of his leadership are coming up around James.
This week alone, James pointed out that his teammates had no problem with losing, unlike his own self.
“Everyone’s so accustomed to the losses that I’m just not accustomed to,” James said after a loss to the Pelicans, who were without Anthony Davis. “I’m not accustomed to it. I’d never get comfortable with losing.”
After a loss to the tanking Grizzlies on Monday, James suggested to players who were distracted by the team’s push to make the playoffs or lingering resentment over trade rumors, “this is the wrong franchise to be a part of and you should just come and be like, ‘Listen, I don’t [think this is for me]. I cannot do this.’”
Thing is, for James, the approach of scapegoating others was pretty successful in Cleveland. Recall:
— February 2015, when James was ticked at the approach of star forward Kevin Love and put out a mysterious message on Twitter stating, “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart [sic] of something special!”
James admitted that was directed at Love. After that, the Cavs finished the season with a 21-8 mark, went 12-2 in the East playoffs and had Golden State down in the Finals before the loss of Kyrie Irving caught up to Cleveland.
— January 2016, when the Cavaliers fired coach David Blatt, who had lost James’ respect. The Cavs attempted to quell the notion that James was behind the firing, but most around the league knew he was down on Blatt, who had gone 30-11 to start the year. With Tyronn Lue taking over, the Cavs again went 12-2 through the East playoffs and shocked the Warriors with a seven-game Finals upset.
— January 2017, when James labeled his team “top-heavy,” claiming the Cavaliers did not “have enough bodies.” Cleveland muddled through the rest of the season but went 12-1 in the East playoffs before being overwhelmed in the Finals by Golden State.
— January 2018, when the story leaked — not coincidentally, while the Cavs were in the midst of an ugly 6-13 stretch — that James had played the first half of the year angry that the front office had not pulled off a trade that would have brought Paul George and Eric Bledsoe to Cleveland the previous summer. The Cavs rallied to finish the season 20-10, and though the playoffs were more of a struggle (12-6), they won the East and went to the franchise’s fourth consecutive Finals.
It was an effective way to lead in Cleveland, perhaps because there were more veteran players, or perhaps because teammates were more accustomed to the influence James can have within an organization.
It’s not working with the Lakers, however. The Lakers have dropped two straight games to move to 11th in the West, three games out of a playoff spot. Going back to Jan. 28 — when it was reported that Davis had requested a trade out of New Orleans, setting off the Lakers’ subsequent disastrous and fervent pursuit of him — the Lakers have gone 3-7 and have a defensive rating of 115.9, 26th in the league. Their net rating, minus-10.1, ranks 29th.
Things won’t get easier, either. According to Tankathon.com, the Lakers have the eighth-most difficult remaining schedule in the league, while three teams they’re fighting for playoff positioning — the Clippers, Jazz and Kings — play among the 10 easiest schedules.
There will plenty of blame to go around should the Lakers miss the postseason. James’ groin injury, which kept him out of 18 games, is the chief culprit, and the chemistry issues stemming from the Davis rumors are right behind. Coach Luke Walton will be blamed, too, as will the team’s overall youth.
But James’ leadership approach has been an utter failure in LA. The methods worked in Cleveland but have not translated to these Lakers. And that’s on James’ shoulders.
Source: Sean Deveney