By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
The juxtaposition between james lebron‘ a few months ago and what he said on Monday was brutal.
In September, he sat down to speak to reporters on a hopeful media day. He talked about the greatness of Russell Westbrook. He loved his chemistry with Anthony Davis. He laughed off any concerns about the Los Angeles Lakers’ aging roster. He was brimming with excitement about a great team with championship expectations.
“I’m super excited,” James said then, adding that he could barely sleep. “I’ve been up since 5:30 this morning.”
Fast forward to Monday, the day after one of the most disappointing seasons in NBA history ended. James’ face was long. His tone was muffled. 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 careers, when we don’t succeed, I take a lot of the blame,” James said in his exit interview. “It’s just who I am. I wish I could have been in charge of this franchise a lot better this year. I wish I could have been in uniform a lot more than I was. I played in 56 games , I think it was . It wasn’t nice at all, sitting on the sidelines knowing you can make a difference and not being able to. Hopefully I can be a lot better with that l ‘next year.
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This Lakers season has been a train wreck of epic proportions.
They were favored to win a title but instead missed the NBA play-in tournament, finishing 11th in the Western Conference with a 33-49 record. Westbrook was a disappointment. Davis was injured. James has played MVP-caliber basketball, but it’s become clear that at 37, he can no longer carry a team on his ailing ankle, knee and groin alone.
The fallout from this season has already begun, pouring out in an ugly and startling way that underscores the supreme dysfunction of one of the league’s most notorious franchises.
Frank Vogel was officially fired on Monday, but learned the news on Sunday thanks to a tweet from an ESPN reporter moments after leading the team to an unlikely comeback against the Denver Nuggets without James, Davis, Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony.
The Lakers leaked the news, which meant a championship-winning coach had to learn his fate along with the rest of the world, and moments later had to discuss it with a roomful of reporters.
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General manager Rob Pelinka had a chance to take responsibility for the debacle when he spoke to reporters on Monday afternoon. Instead, he played dodgeball.
“We do not respond to unsourced media reports,” Pelinka said. “And in terms of the timing of that decision, we’re going to keep that in-house.”
James showed some support for Vogel, saying, “I have nothing but respect for him.” When asked if he had a problem with how the news came, he replied, “I can only control what I can control.”
Westbrook, however, acknowledged that his relationship with Vogel never worked out. 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 start, had the impression [we were on the same page]”, Westbrook said. “I had to try to prove myself to him, my abilities and what I was able to do for this match.
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That’s for sure: it’s going to be a long and tumultuous offseason for the Lakers.
When Pelinka was asked who he sees leading the Lakers next, he said someone with “a loud voice.” Of course, a strong voice, but also thick skin and a slightly masochistic side.
And the search for coaches 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 owes next season?
Pelinka said first and foremost Westbrook has a decision to make as he has a player option. But, he added, “We will search under every stone for ways to be better.”
As for Westbrook, he came clean after one of the toughest seasons of his career. According to him, he never had “a fair chance”. When asked which way, he claimed, “Top to bottom. Just every aspect.”
Westbrook said some stories in the media produced false drama and portrayed him in a negative light. He claimed that Vogel had a problem with him. He even said James and Davis’ “Let Russ be Russ” slogan was meaningless.
As for his future plans, he is not sure yet.
“I will make the decision,” he said. “That’s why it’s called a player option.”
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So many things have gone wrong for this team. They had 41 different starting formations, which James repeated out loud on Monday in amazement. Kendrick Nunn has not played any matches. The superstars have been beset by injuries.
James was sidelined 26 games and Davis missed 42, meaning James, Davis and Westbrook only played 21 games together. They went 11-10. Other teams with far less talent — teams that didn’t have five future Hall of Famers — also struggled with injuries while making the playoffs.
Still, James argued that maybe, just maybe, this team could have been good.
“At the end of the day, the reason we weren’t very good together is that we weren’t on this damn floor together,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. I don’t know – you know – how many games have we played together? We’ve played 21 games. That’s a quarter of the season. Less than a quarter 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, okay? There it is.”
Pelinka, however, has repeatedly acknowledged that the list “just doesn’t work.”
He took responsibility for that, and rightly so, given that he traded every key player in the 2020 Championship squad to acquire an inconsistent Westbrook.
As for the next steps, Pelinka kept those close to the vest. James admitted the Lakers needed help everywhere, both on offense and defense, after finishing 22nd and 21st respectively out of the league’s 30 teams.
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Perhaps the saddest part of this disaster is that one of James’ final seasons was wasted.
He could have been an MVP contender if his team had been better. He had a career-high 30.3 points in his 19th season and could have won the scoring title had he not missed the team’s last five games with an ankle injury. When asked if it bothered him that he hadn’t at least won that accolade, he backed off.
“Going for a goalscoring title when you’re not making the playoffs is the craziest thing ever,” James said.
But playing those games wasn’t an option anyway.
On Friday, an MRI of James’ ankle revealed he did not need surgery, but had to be on 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 aggravated the injury, but he is confident he will make a full recovery.
He also promised on Monday that the team would come back better next season. He stressed that he was always hungry for more championships. As for the offseason, he joked that he intended to trick the referees so he could get to the free throw line more.
But, of course, the bigger question is whether James will sign a contract extension before becoming an unrestricted free agent after next season. For now, he declined to comment on his future with the team as it would be in violation of the collective agreement.
But Pelinka expressed confidence that James will stay in a Lakers uniform.
“Every indication we’ve gotten is that he calls the Lakers his home,” Pelinka said.
But James’ window closes. He needs help. The fact that this team missed the playoffs is unacceptable. This season has been a blight on a proud franchise.
And for James, it was all deeply disappointing, in marked contrast to his unbridled excitement just seven months ago.
“Winning is everything to me,” he said on Monday. “And the fact that I was playing the way I was playing and it wasn’t resulting in wins – that just wasn’t good enough.”
Pelinka knows he has to find a way to change that. He needs to put the right pieces around James now – or else.
“The Lakers’ calculus of success is pretty binary,” he said. “Either we win a championship or we don’t. There are no gold stars for the in-between, and there are no attaboys. This year we failed in this 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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