There are a lot of egos circling the Los Angeles Lakers these days and we're not talking about Jack, Denzel, and whatever B- or C-lister impressed a studio executive enough for court-side seats. Team president Magic Johnson deservedly has one, as does former star Kobe Bryant. Both weighed in on the state of the team recently, and their thoughts were relayed to current Lakers star, LeBron James. His response was interesting for a number of factors, even if they can only be gleaned from the subtext.
"We are trying to make sure that we watch [LeBron's] minutes but also that we don't run everything through him," Magic told Sirius XM NBA Radio, "because now it is Cleveland all over again, and we don't want that." Then, during Monday's "All-Access" Lakers event at Staples Center, Kobe—after dragging bandwagon Warriors fans—chimed in as well, as recounted by Joe Vardon for The Athletic.
"At the beginning of the season, you saw a collection of individual talent trying to figure out what they can do and where they can do it on the floor," Bryant said at the Lakers fete. "What about their games? But at the same time how to figure out how to make those games blend in as a group. You can’t have one before the other, see what I’m saying? So it’s a test of Bron’s patience, and also doing what he needs to do to keep the team’s head above water. So it’s a balancing act."
James, a master media manipulator even when put in difficult positions like this, offered up this response, via The Athletic's Bill Oram:
"I don’t know what asking me to do too much is, to be honest," James said. "I understand the logic behind what Magic and Kobe are saying because we want to grow the young guys… But, I mean, Magic and Kobe know who I am. I know who I am. They know what they’re going to get out of me. That is, you know what you’re going to get out of me every game… When it’s really, really, really money time, you know who is going to be there."
More telling was when he said during that same discussion the competitor in him wants to play all 48 minutes every game while acknowledging that would be incredibly unwise if you're thinking long term, which the Lakers are.
LeBron's confusion stems from never really having to think about his basketball mortality. He's played into June the last eight seasons, an unheard of streak of success and stamina in the modern game (tell those bozos screaming about the LEastern Conference to can it). But it's staring him in the face. He knows he's getting up their in age when wet-behind-the-ears teammates don't know any words to Jay-Z's The Blueprint (let alone Reasonable Doubt) but all the mumbled bars by Lil Uzi Vert. He takes care of his body enough to put up similar numbers as his MVP campaigns in Miami and Cleveland, but he's in uncharted territory as mentor instead of leader.
His cyborg-like ability to remain healthy despite all the wear and tear of repeated trips to the Finals won't allow him to entertain the thought of ceding control. But that's what he needs to do for the Lakers to be successful; for Brandon Ingram to fulfill on his promise as either a sidekick or trade chip; for Lonzo Ball to play point man on a LeBron team, or thorn in the side of some mid-market franchise stuck with Lavar.
James doesn't understand what Magic and Kobe are saying, but he knows what they mean. Whether he can translate that on the court might be just as hard, if not harder, than every one of his trips to the NBA's biggest stage.