Point/Counterpoint: Is LeBron James committed to basketball? 

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LeBron James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. He has demonstrated his prowess and savvy on the court by winning championships with three different franchises and in different eras of NBA basketball. But as of late, it seems as though James has chosen to be more laid back in his approach to basketball, even stating recently that “there’s nothing [he’s] going to learn in preseason at this point of [his] career,” as reason for not appearing in each of the Lakers’ first four preseason games. That comment has stirred up the NBA world just enough to make it a point of contention for some fans. So, is James wrong to dismiss preseason basketball? Or is he really so good that it doesn’t matter? That is the debate for this week’s edition of Point/Counterpoint. 

October 8, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) during the second quarter at Chase Center. Photo By Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Ajeeth: I would like to start off by saying that LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all time thanks to his impressive body of work and general basketball IQ and skill. That being said, I still find it hard to believe that James has, as he puts it, “Nothing at all… Nothing. That means zero,” to gain from playing preseason basketball. He also mentioned in that presser that he’s more inclined to love practices because adjustments are made on the fly while also specifying that there is nothing for him to learn “individually” by playing preseason basketball. James is talking as if he has perennially conquered the sport of basketball, and that it would be beneath him to get to know the other athletes that he will be playing with for (hopefully) 82 regular season games. This sort of confidence (that borders on arrogance) would be something you’d expect from a player after winning a championship, but what happened to the Lakers last April? That’s right! An embarrassment at the hands of the Suns in the first round, so embarrassing that he decided to walk off the court before Game 6, the clinching game for the Suns, was over, not wanting to take heat from the home fans. How can it be acceptable that James makes the conscious decision to lay down and die in the playoffs, only to also choose not to play in the preseason because it is meaningless to him? I think this pattern of behavior signals a specific shift in James’ focus, away from basketball. 

Evan: I know that we can certainly agree on the greatness of James on the court with his star-studded list of accomplishments and consistent play. However, it’s certainly baffling to say that James is not committed to basketball at this point in his career. This is the same NBA great that spends $1.5 million on his body to be in peak physical condition to perform and stay healthy. For his opinion on the preseason, I believe that he may not have motivation for playing in the preseason, but for basketball in general, that is certainly not true. James is still putting up All-Star numbers at 36 years old and has shown no signs of slowing down. If the 17 time All-Star was uncommitted to the game he loves so dearly, why doesn’t he retire? James has given his all for the game and has proven to every NBA fan his place in basketball history. Off the court, he certainly doesn’t need the money as shown by the star’s wealth of endorsements including a lifetime contract with Nike. With James’ performance against Phoenix, the small-forward can only do so much with the absence of Anthony Davis and against a great team like the Suns. Phoenix was still able to make it out of the West and show the entire NBA that the team wasn’t just a fluke after beating Los Angeles. With James’ wealth of assets throughout the team including a healthy Davis, All-Star Russell Westbrook and more, the all-time great will not only show his commitment to his team this year, but also his commitment to basketball. 

Ajeeth: I have two qualms with what you said. One, James has led worse teams through better opponents than those Phoenix Suns. Those Suns certainly were good, but we could have said the same about the 2007 Pistons, the 2015 Hawks and all those poor Toronto Raptors teams he stomped on during his second stint in Cleveland. If what we say about him is true, that he is a one-of-a-kind player, that he can take a bad team and make it a title contender without much difficulty and that he can put a whole team on his back in order to win a series, then there is no excusing him checking out of any series at any point in time, more so in an elimination game. James has gotten to the Finals without help plenty of times before, so why did he act like it would have been impossible last year? Also, the wealth of talent around him is impressive this year, but basketball is a team sport, and we have seen teams that look impressive on paper flop on the court because they never gel (2012 Lakers, anyone?). How can James trust that Westbrook will seamlessly fit into an offense where James has the ball almost all the time, especially when Russell Westbrook is a ball-first, athletic point guard with limited shooting range? It takes some serious leadership to integrate a player like that into the Lakers, which makes it all the more confusing that he feels he will learn nothing from the preseason. On the day of the most recent Lakers preseason game against the Suns, James chose to go watch a football game instead of suiting up for gametime. The hubris required to do that has arisen from complacency and the feeling from James that he does not have to focus on basketball 100% to win, leading me to conclude that he has interests elsewhere, something else that he must be focusing on instead of trying his hardest to congeal with his team to win a championship. 

Evan: First, while James did lead his team over a great 2007 Pistons team, let’s not forget that he still had both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on those teams that beat both the Hawks and Raptors, players who are extremely great players of that time along with even more talent across the board. Even in the series against Phoenix, James was playing with heavy ankle trouble, which impacted James’ ability to play at full strength. It certainly was not impossible for James to beat Phoenix in last year’s playoff loss, but when the team was suffering injuries across the court, it started to become a bit more difficult. While the 2012 Lakers are a great example of a team that did not work well together, this team differs significantly from their 2012 counterpart. Steve Nash, who was in his age 38 year in the league, was dealing heavily with injuries and was far from his prime years in the league. While Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant were shown to work well together, a prime Dwight Howard’s attitude simply would never have worked well with the fiery competitiveness of the Black Mamba. With this current Lakers roster, the team is formulated to work. Even with the question of Westbrook, the point-guard has proven that he is able to work with other superstars in the past and with James’ ability to get his teammates plenty of opportunities to score, I’m confident that the leader of the Lakers will be able to guide his team to another serious postseason run. If there is anyone who can prove this serious leadership, it’s James. With 18 years in the league and a serious risk for injury in the preseason, I can totally see why he would state that he has little to learn from the preseason and not play at all. If the forward feels that he should focus his efforts toward practice and less toward the preseason, it’s not a bad decision to make.   

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