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LeBron’s Lakers finale veers off script

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by Rob Woollard

As movie pitches go, LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers had all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.

An ageing NBA superstar joins a storied-but-struggling franchise and leads a dramatic revival which transforms the team into title contenders.

But five months after James began training with the Lakers, the perfectly scripted finale has been stuck in what entertainment industry executives call “development hell”.

After a promising start to their new era, the Lakers have tailed off dramatically since an injured James limped out of a Christmas Day upset of the mighty Golden State Warriors.

At that point, the Lakers were still firmly in the Western Conference playoff hunt with a respectable 20-14 record.

Since then, however, the Lakers have won nine games and lost 17, a slump which has seen them fall out of the playoff rankings into 11th spot in the West, three places adrift of the eighth postseason slot.

Much of that slide can be attributed to James’ prolonged absence due to a groin injury, with the 34-year-old missing all of January before returning for a 123-120 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on February 1.

However, the Lakers have continued to struggle even with James back in the line-up.

A chastening sequence of results has included the heaviest defeat of James’ career, a 136-94 pounding by the Indiana Pacers, as well as losses to lower-ranked opponents who have little to play for.

The most recent of those came on Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies, who are one place off the bottom of the West with a 24-38 record.

James later appeared to question his team-mates’ focus after Monday’s 110-105 reverse in Memphis, suggesting that any player unable to cope with the pressure of chasing a playoff berth should find another club.

– Locker room turmoil? –
“At this point if you are still allowing distractions to affect how the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of and you should just come and be like, ‘Listen, I don’t think this is for me’,” James told reporters.

Those kind of comments are unlikely to endear him to a locker room which has reportedly been in turmoil since the team’s pursuit of New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis ended in failure in early February.

The Lakers were reported to have offered several prominent members of their roster in exchange for Davis, including Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

James meanwhile had earlier spoken favourably of a possible link-up with Davis, saying playing alongside the Pelicans ace would be “amazing”.

The perception that the Lakers’ pursuit of Davis was going ahead with James’ blessing was pounced upon by rival fans.

Ingram was subjected to taunts of “LeBron’s gonna trade you” during the loss to Indiana on February 5.

One unnamed NBA executive believes James bears some of the responsibility for the Lakers’ problems by making no secret of his admiration for Davis.

“He killed the Lakers’ chemistry,” the executive told Bleacher Report. “He shouldn’t have been so public about it.”

Other pundits, however, believe the Lakers’ problems are linked directly to James’ fitness and his lengthy injury layoff.

“The biggest problem with the Los Angeles Lakers is LeBron James,” Stephen A. Smith told ESPN’s First Take show.

“Age, attrition or injury. Something is not right. He doesn’t look like himself.”

James meanwhile has always cautioned that rebuilding the Lakers would be a long-term project, stating in September that he anticipated “bumps and bruises” as the team attempted to rebuild after missing the playoffs for five straight seasons prior to his arrival.

But James must now conjure something remarkable over the final weeks of the regular season if he is to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in his career since 2005.

The Lakers face a brutal run-in which includes games against Boston, Denver, Toronto and Milwaukee.

A daunting final six-game stretch sees them play New Orleans, Golden State, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Utah and Portland. (Agence France-Presse/AFP)