Much hated-on LeBron James is living his ‘Kingdom Come’ season
Can he bring his own ‘American Gangster’ to the Lakers?
Hours before the Los Angeles Lakers’ thrilling 129-128 road victory on Feb. 7 over the Boston Celtics, the last bright spot of the Lakers’ season, LeBron James brooded. Though title aspirations were faint, his team was then 27-27 and in playoff contention.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James told Masslive.com after a shootaround at Boston’s TD Garden. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. … Even though I love the process of everything I go through, to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to come for championships … there’s nothing I’m chasing, or that I feel I need to end my career on.”
James’ mood that night, and the Lakers’ season as a whole, brings to mind Jay-Z’s ninth album, and the idea that James is living through his Kingdom Come season. Grand hype met with mammoth disappointment, Kingdom was highly anticipated. Released in 2006, the project was Jay-Z’s post-retirement album, and his career’s worst.
“First game back,” Jay-Z said in 2013, ranking the project dead last in his discography. “Don’t shoot me.”
Jay-Z then, like James now, was already a legend with credentials for Hall of Fame status. But there were expectations that came with Jay-Z rhyming and painting pictures into mics. A standard of excellence that James is familiar with.
Fast-forward a month and a half and the Lakers, currently 11th in the Western Conference, are officially eliminated from the playoffs. Suspensions, questionable offseason (and in-season) moves. Injuries, trade rumors and actual trades, Brandon Ingram’s health scare and Lonzo Ball’s family controversy — all these pieces matter when discussing what went wrong with a season that began with pageantry that vowed everything but a Lakers championship parade.
So for a Lakers fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2013, summer vacations starting in spring are, painfully, business as usual. Before the season, realistic projections had the Lakers winning 50 games, James capturing MVP for the fifth time and the team eventually falling to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
But now James is preparing to start the longest offseason he’s had since 2005, when the world looked different — Apple didn’t even have an iPhone, Zion Williamson hadn’t started elementary school and YouTube wasn’t yet a verb. James also finds himself in a familiar situation: on the receiving end of mountains of criticism.
A litany of critiques, observations and charges have emerged or re-emerged this season: James sat away from his teammates during a road loss to the New York Knicks. Growing up in a single-parent household is why he’s a bad leader and teammate. James killed the Lakers’ chemistry. LeBron has a dysfunction fetish. Los Angeles doesn’t love him. His defense has been worse than court-appointed attorneys. James is a coach killer, and not only is Lakers skipper Luke Walton next on his hit list — but James is supposedly the reason Doc Rivers squashed rumors that he wanted to coach the Lakers next. And: The Lakers should look into trading James this offseason.
There are even questions such as: Does James even still care about basketball? Did he really sit out a game against the Warriors because he was in the studio with 2 Chainz the night before? How do you get swept by the Knicks?
This is just the media. NBA fans are talking as well.
I say this reluctantly / ’Cause I do struggle/ As you can see / I can’t leave / So I do love you … — “The Prelude”
The texts in the group chat rang out back-to-back. To back. To back. Four of us, 30ish black male friends living in big cities who have been arguing about sports and life for more than a decade.
“The playoffs are LeBron-free for the first time in 14 years. And for the first time in seven or eight years, I’m interested in the playoffs.”
“Oh yeah … [LeBron] killed the game for me. Most definitely.”
“… his move to the West and missing the playoffs shows just how overrated he is. As if the 3-6 Finals record wasn’t enough.”
“Great individual player. But overrated as a winner, big time.”
And for good measure:
“His claim to fame has been dragging teams w/ limited talent to great heights. So what happened in LA? All I heard from Bron Bron last night after the game was excuses.”
“My prayers have been answered … LeBron won’t be part of the postseason and I can watch w/ renewed interest.”
Much of this, from both fans and the media, has been tucked in the chamber for years. But James isn’t solely to blame for this lost Lakers season. All chips on the table, his 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 51 percent field goal shooting still confirm him as a weapon of mass destruction on offense (although his 66 percent free throw shooting is well below his career average of 73.4).
And this performance has occurred after a groin injury that sidelined him for 18 games — and ultimately derailed the season. James’ physical therapist said the injury should have cost him most of the season.
After Sunday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, the reality of missing the playoffs called for perspective.
“I would never cheat myself,” James said in a Yoda-like tone after his 81st career triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), against Sacramento. “I know we’re out the playoff race, but if I’m on the court, I’m going to play how I play, and I play to win. So I will never cheat the game.”
But when you’re the best player in the world, and your team misses the playoffs in train wreck fashion, there’s not much to do other than fall on your sword. “Obviously,” James said last week, “I made a ton of mistakes. I wasn’t as good as I’m accustomed to being. I was pretty s—-y.”
Countless reasons exist why James encounters the level of criticism he does. A man of extreme extremes, his highs are incredibly high — à la the 2013 and 2016 NBA Finals. His lows are embarrassingly low — the 2011 Finals, and this season.
The energy that has surrounded him from the moment he burst onto the national scene almost 20 years ago has always been wild. There’s no way a phenom dubbed Michael Jordan’s heir apparent before graduating from high school gets middle-of-the-road coverage. He was pegged to redirect the sport and the culture around when he was getting investigated for driving a Hummer and dominating pros as a junior in high school.
Yet, how dare he be mentioned alongside Jordan, some say. Even worse, how dare he openly covet the GOAT title over Jordan? The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom. When he wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.
I ain’t talking bout the 2-3 / Mami in the zone like the homie two-three / Jordan or James, makes no difference/ We all ballin’ the same … — “Show Me What You Got”
In 2006, Jay-Z returned to rap with his first full solo album since The Black Album. It was culture’s most anticipated spectacle — much like James’ Hollywood arrival 12 years later. The three-year hiatus was a long break between solo projects, and the album arrived two days before Thanksgiving. Kingdom Come, however, felt like a lump of coal.
Jay-Z’s unbridled confidence hadn’t wavered, though, as he displayed on “Trouble” and on the album’s best number, “The Prelude.” But the album, akin to James’ inaugural campaign in Tinseltown, was panned as disjointed and anticlimactic — even as it sold more than 1.5 million copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop album chart and, in retrospect, may not have been as critically wack as it seemed at the time.
Just a few days ago, on March 24, James took to Instagram, after a disjointed and anticlimactic season, with a message — perhaps because, in his mind, next season has already begun. “Believe me!” he exclaimed. “Promise #LakerNation the spell won’t last much longer! I swear. The marathon continues.”
So now the Lakers’ 2019-20 season begins. It has to. And if there is one last mission for James to accomplish, it’s to reverse the current narrative just like he did after the backlash over 2010’s “The Decision.” If this season was his Kingdom Come, then next season is James’ own American Gangster — the Jay-Z album that even he dubbed “black superhero music” on the lead single “Roc Boys,” and which won near universal acclaim.
Maybe, just maybe, all this drama will have been worth it. Even with nothing to prove, Jay-Z had something to prove. And LeBron James, love or hate him, is cut from the same cloth.