By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The juxtaposition between LeBron James‘words a few months ago and what they said Monday was stark.
In September, he sat down to talk to reporters at a media day filled with hope. He spoke about Russell Westbrook’s greatness. He raved about his chemistry with Anthony Davis. He laughed off any concerns about the Los Angeles Lakers’ aging roster. He was brimming with enthusiasm about a superteam with championship expectations.
“I’m super excited,” James said then, adding that he could barely sleep. “I’ve been up since like 5:30 this morning.”
Fast-forward to Monday, the day after one of the more disappointing seasons in NBA history came to an end. James’ face was long. His tone was hushed. He had endured many sleepless nights over the previous 215 days – but for a very different reason.
“If you follow me in any of my career, when we don’t succeed, I take a lot of responsibility,” James said in his exit interview. “That’s just who I am. I wish I could’ve been a lot better in leading this franchise this year. I wish I could’ve been in uniform a lot more than I was. I played in 56 games, I believe it was “That wasn’t enjoyable at all, sitting on the guidelines, knowing that you can make a difference and not be able to do it. Hopefully I can be a lot better with that next year.”
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This Lakers season was a train wreck of epic proportions.
They were favored to win a title but instead missed the NBA’s play-in tournament, finishing 11th in the Western Conference with a record of 33-49. Westbrook was a disappointment. Davis was injured. James played MVP-caliber basketball, but it became clear that at age 37, he can no longer single-handedly carry a team on his ailing ankle, knee and groin.
The fallout from this season has already begun, spilling out in an ugly and surprising manner that emphasizes the supreme dysfunction of one of the most celebrated franchises in the league.
Frank Vogel was officially fired Monday, but he learned the news Sunday from a tweet by an ESPN reporter moments after he led the team to an improbable comeback against the Denver Nuggets without James, Davis, Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony.
The Lakers leaked the news, which meant the championship-winning coach had to learn his fate at the same time as the rest of the world, and moments later, he had to discuss it with a room full of reporters.
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GM Rob Pelinka had a chance to take responsibility for the debacle when he spoke to reporters Monday afternoon. Instead, he played dodgeball.
“We don’t respond to unsourced media reports,” Pelinka said. “And in terms of the timing of that decision, we’re going to keep that internal.”
James showed Vogel some support, saying, “I got nothing but respect for him.” When asked if he had a problem with the way the news came down, he responded, “I can only control what I can control.”
Westbrook, however, acknowledged that his relationship with Vogel never worked. He said when he arrived in Los Angeles, he sent Vogel and his wife a bottle of champagne for their anniversary, but the gesture didn’t have the desired effect.
“I never, from the get-go, was feeling like [we were on the same page]”Westbrook said.” I was having to try to prove myself to him and my capabilities and what I’ve been able to do for this game. “
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This much is for sure: It’s going to be a long, tumultuous offseason for the Lakers.
When Pelinka was asked whom he was inside leading the Lakers next, they got someone with “a strong voice.” Sure, a strong voice, but also a thick skin and a bit of a masochistic streak.
And the coaching search is just one of the many things the Lakers need to figure out. Another question: What are they going to do about Westbrook and the $ 47 million he’s owed next season?
Pelinka said that first and foremost, Westbrook has a decision to make because he has a player option. But, he added, “We’re gonna look under every stone for ways to be better.”
As for Westbrook, he was candid following one of the most challenging seasons of his career. According to him, he was never given a “fair chance.” When asked in what sense, he claimed, “From top to bottom. Just every aspect.”
Westbrook got some stories in the media churned up false drama and painted him in a negative light. He claimed that Vogel had an issue with him. He even said James ‘and Davis’ slogan “Let Russ be Russ” was empty air.
As for his future plans, he’s not sure yet.
“I’ll make the decision,” he said. “That’s why it’s called a player option.”
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So much went wrong for this team. They had 41 different starting lineups, something James repeated out loud Monday, stunned. Kendrick Nunn didn’t play a single game. The superstars were beset by injuries.
James was sidelined for 26 games, and Davis missed 42, meaning that James, Davis and Westbrook played in only 21 games together. They went 11-10. Other teams with way less talent – teams that didn’t have five future Hall of Famers – also struggled with injuries yet made the playoffs.
Still, James maintained that maybe, just maybe, this team could’ve been good.
“At the end of the day, the reason why we weren’t very good together is we weren’t on the damn floor together,” he said. “That is the No. 1 thing. I don’t know – you guys know – how many games did we play together? We played 21 games. That’s a fourth of the season. Less than a fourth of the season. So I can ‘t even [analyze it]. I played more games with my high school teammates in a season, and we only played 27 games, all right? So there it is. “
Pelinka, however, acknowledged multiple times that the roster just “didn’t work.”
He took accountability for that, and rightfully so, considering that he traded away all the key role players from the 2020 championship squad to acquire an inconsistent Westbrook.
As for next steps, Pelinka kept those close to the vest. James admitted that the Lakers need help everywhere, are both offense and defense, after finishing 22nd and 21st out of the league’s 30 teams, respectively.
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Perhaps the saddest part of this disaster is that one of James’ final seasons was wasted.
He could’ve been an MVP contender if his team had been better. He averaged a career-high 30.3 points in his 19th season and could’ve won the scoring title if he hadn’t missed the team’s final five games due to an ankle injury. Asked if it bothered him that he didn’t at least win that accolade, he recoiled.
“Going after a scoring title when you’re not making the postseason is the most wackest thing ever,” James said.
But playing in those games wasn’t an option anyway.
On Friday, an MRI of James’ ankle revealed he doesn’t need surgery but does need to stay off his feet for four to six weeks. He acknowledged that playing against New Orleans on April 1 – when the Lakers were still in the hunt for the play-in – likely made the injury worse, but he’s confident he’ll have a full recovery.
He also vowed Monday that the team will come back better next season. He emphasized that he’s still hungry for more championships. As for the offseason, he joked that he intended to work on tricking the refs so they could get to the free-throw line more.
But, of course, the biggest question of all is whether James will sign a contract extension before becoming an unrestricted free agent following next season. For now, he declined to comment on his future with the team because it would be in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
But Pelinka expressed confidence that James will remain in a Lakers uniform.
“Every indication that we’ve received is that he’s inside the Lakers as his home,” Pelinka said.
But James’ window is closing. He needs help. The fact that this team missed the playoffs is unacceptable. This season was a blight on a proud franchise.
And for James, it was all profoundly disappointing, in marked contrast to his unbridled excitement just seven months ago.
“Winning is everything to me,” he said Monday. “And the fact that I was playing the way that I was playing and it wasn’t resulting in wins – it just wasn’t enough.”
Pelinka knows they need to find a way to change that. He needs to put the correct pieces around James now – or else.
“The calculus for the Lakers’ success is pretty binary,” he said. “Either we win a championship, or we don’t. There’s no gold stars for the in between, and there’s no attaboys. This year we failed in that mission.”
They didn’t just fail.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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