LeBron James looked none the worse for wear in the aftermath of the Lakers’ victory against the Warriors the other day. No doubt, it was because the outcome had the purple and gold snatching homecourt advantage in the series from the heavily favored hosts. And never mind that his own performance could be deemed pedestrian even by the standards of the average All-Star. The fact that he needed 24 shots to post 22 points reflected his lack of efficiency, which was itself an offshoot of his tried legs. As evidenced by his flat — and often short — jumpers and tentative drives to the hoop, he had little to no lift, especially in the waning minutes of the close encounter.
All the same, James chose to bask in the triumph that conventional wisdom pegged as unexpected. Needless to say, he had a lot of help from his teammates en route to the win — and to a degree not seen since his Heat days. To contend that he is no longer the best player on the Lakers’ roster would be to understate the obvious; without question, that distinction now belongs to Anthony Davis. And he was only too glad to acknowledge it, in full understanding that meeting the ultimate objective necessitated an unconditional embrace of his frailties.
Father Time is undefeated, even against James. For all his exertions to keep his body in shape at his age, he is clearly feeling the wear and tear of the 2023 Playoffs. It’s what all the miles since being drafted first overall in 2003 — during which time he made a whopping 10 Finals appearances — has done to him. And it’s only going to get worse, what with the short turnaround time between set-tos from here on. In the Lakers’ first round series against the Grizzlies, his production waxed and waned in the last four matches held every other day.
Make no mistake. James continues to make his presence felt, and how. He remains the most cerebral gladiator on the floor at any given time, and mere muscle memory coupled with keen comprehension of the stakes enable him to continue coming up with robust stat lines. Not that he needs to carry the Lakers the way he did last season. It’s understandable for a part of him to actually want to, but he knows not relying more on those around him at this point would be sheer folly. Instead, he has learned to welcome collective success in the face of his own challenges.
Whether the Lakers will prevail over the Warriors in the conference semifinals remains to be seen. They would certainly welcome more from him, and he will leave nothing in the tank whenever he burns rubber. In the final analysis, however, their fate no longer depends on his optimized output. And as he begins to accept this as the norm moving forward, he’s only too happy to be tagging along for the ride.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.