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Thursday, April 06, 2023

LeBron "No Excuses" James Offers Lame Excuses After Losing to the Clippers

Throughout his long and highly decorated career, LeBron James has often said that he is a "no excuses" player, and that his teams are "no excuses" teams.

Last night, James recited lame excuses after his L.A. Lakers lost 125-118 to the L.A. Clippers, the Lakers' 11th straight defeat at the hands of their crosstown rivals--a setback that will likely relegate the Lakers to the Play-In Tournament, an embarrassment for a team led by two players named to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team (LeBron James and Anthony Davis).

Norman Powell led the Clippers with 27 points, while Kawhi Leonard added 25 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Former Laker Ivica Zubac contributed 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Bones Hyland added 14 points in 21 minutes off of the bench.

Russell Westbrook, banished by the Lakers in February and then signed by the Clippers, had 14 points and four assists (tied for team-high honors with Leonard and Powell) in 21 minutes. Dared by the Lakers to shoot, Westbrook shot 6-12 from the field, including 2-4 from three point range. Clippers Coach Ty Lue explained that Westbrook played slightly fewer minutes than usual because when the time came for Westbrook to be reinserted in the lineup during the second half the reserves were playing very well so Lue decided to stick with the hot hand. Westbrook made no secret of his joy after each shot that he made, but--even more significantly--when he was not in the game he cheered enthusiastically for his teammates. Westbrook is an unselfish, team-first player. 

I don't evaluate players and teams based on the outcome of one game, but for everyone who has repeatedly issued negative hot takes about Russell Westbrook based on one game or even one play, in order to prove that you are not hypocritical you have no choice but to put some respect on that man's name after this game, particularly considering how well Westbrook has fit in with his new team.

In his post-game interview, Zubac said of Westbrook, "He's a great dude. Great leader. Always happy, always positive. Helping everyone on the court. Helped me a lot. He leads us on and off the court. He's a great dude. So we just wanted to prove everyone wrong, prove all those rumors and that stuff that was said about him wrong. It just makes it better that it came in the biggest game of the season."

Leonard also praised Westbrook: "Every night he's coming out with energy, being aggressive no matter what game it is. He is helping us be a better team, be a faster team, and be more organized with him having the ball and pointing us in our spots."

The Clippers notched this big win despite being without the services of Paul George, who has finished as high as third in regular season MVP balloting and who was in the midst of another All-Star season before suffering a knee injury that has sidelined him indefinitely. The Clippers made no excuses before or after the game; they just showed up ready to play, and they got the job done.

Meanwhile, James was the only Lakers' starter who had a negative plus/minus number (-10). Every other Lakers' starter had a plus/minus number of +8 or better. Plus/minus numbers for individual players can be "noisy" in small sample sizes, but they can also tell at least part of the story when combined with intelligent use of the eye test--and the eye test revealed that James is a master of "stat padding": he may be better than any great player ever at putting up huge numbers that have little to no connection with team success (he is also very good at putting up huge numbers that are connected to team success, which is why he has won four championships). 

It is often--and incorrectly--asserted that the NBA is a fourth quarter league. The reality is that many games are decided in the first quarter; that is when matchup advantages are often established, and that is when teams often build leads that are too substantial for the opposing team to overcome. Sure, teams can make runs--and that is part of how the plus/minus numbers can become noisy--but an early advantage often sets the tone and decides the outcome. Last night, the Clippers jumped out to an 8-0 lead as Westbrook assisted on the team's first two field goals before draining a three pointer. The Clippers led 37-31 at the end of the first quarter, and by halftime the Clippers were routing the Lakers, 71-52. Leonard (17 points), Powell (13 points), and Westbrook (12 points) had set the tone. Meanwhile, James scored three first half points on 1-6 field goal shooting while posting a ghastly -25 plus/minus number. 

With the outcome not in doubt, James unleashed one of the great stat-padding performances in recent history, scoring 30 second half points as the Lakers trailed by double digits for most of the final two quarters. The Lakers are likely heading for the Play-In Tournament, but the very deliberate point of James' second half showing is to shift the narrative from the Lakers' sorry season to James' individual numbers: "How can anyone blame James?" is the narrative du jour. After all, James finished with a game-high 33 points on 13-20 field goal shooting while amassing eight rebounds and seven assists. There may not be a better example than this game of why I consistently insist--in direct opposition to "stat gurus"--that you cannot understand basketball merely by looking at selected statistics. James knows that most media members will promote his preferred narrative.

After the game, James--surrounded by an adoring, non-critical media throng, declared, "It was tough. It's one of the toughest games we've had this year. Coming off the road trip and even though this is a road game, getting back late last night, but after an overtime game, this was a tough game for us. We started off the first half not playing Laker basketball...this was one of those scheduling conflicts in the season and definitely got the best of us tonight."

By the time James finished his whining about traveling, road games, and the schedule, I expected the media members to give him a hug out of sympathy for the tough, tough challenges that he and his team overcame by playing a "road" game in Los Angeles after playing an overtime game the night before. Try to imagine Kobe Bryant uttering the words that James said--which is hard to do, because Bryant did not make excuses--and then imagine how the media would have covered such a loss and such excuses.  

Dave McMenamin, who asserted after the Lakers traded Westbrook that Westbrook's presence in the locker room was equivalent to a "vampire"--a slanderous accusation unsupported by any evidence or on the record comments--did not frame the Lakers' loss as an indictment of James and Davis (who had a quiet, non-impactful 17 points and 11 rebounds). Instead, McMenamin questioned whether the Lakers' stars should have played at all: "With three games remaining in the regular season and playoff seeding on the line, the Los Angeles Lakers played their stars Wednesday against the LA Clippers. The question is, after a 125-118 loss in a game in which the Lakers trailed by as many as 24 points, was it worth it when they could have just prioritized rest in an attempt to be as spry as can be for the final two regular-season games this weekend?"

McMenamin did his job--not to be a journalist, but to be a p.r. flack for James and deflect attention from James' first half disappearing act as the Lakers lost a critical game for playoff positioning. No one is interested in McMenamin's recommendations about load management, or his not so veiled implication that James' poor performance when the game was up for grabs is the fault of the coach who dared to put James on the court in the second game of a back to back. Instead of casting himself as some kind of basketball strategist, McMenamin could have described what he saw: James disappeared when the game was up for grabs with playoff positioning on the line. That is the lede, and McMenamin buried it like a vampire burying a victim.

Contrast James' approach, attitude, and performance with the approach, attitude, and performance of Kobe Bryant, as discussed in my recap of the 2018 NBA Finals:

Bryant has made some interesting comments in the past week or so about comparing James to himself and to other great players (as quoted in a recent article by Howard Beck): "Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court. He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"

Bryant added these pertinent thoughts and observations:

All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
There is a lot of wisdom contained in those remarks but three points stand out: (1) This is not about "narrative" but about results. James is too often concerned more about controlling the "narrative" than he is about doing whatever it takes to win; (2) great players historically have been judged largely based on championships won, because every player has possible excuses/contextual factors to mention but the best of the best figure out how to get the job done; (3) leadership is not just about throwing the ball to players (particularly in situations when the great player should be assuming the obligation to score) but about empowering those players to improve on a daily basis.

The media narrative states that James is a great teammate and leader. The reality is that his tenure ended badly the first time in Cleveland (and may end badly this time as well) and his tenure in Miami ended with the great Pat Riley referring to "smiling faces with hidden agendas." 

At some point, a resume contains too many black marks to go to the top of the list, no many how many positives are on the resume as well. I have often said that James confounds me more than any other Pantheon level player and that remains true. I am disappointed that he not only injured himself during the 2018 Finals but that he waited until he got swept to reveal the injury, an announcement that not only comes across as a weak excuse but also takes attention away from what the Warriors accomplished. For me, the enduring image of this series will be the several sequences in game three during which the Warriors set fake screens and James switched off of Durant unnecessarily as opposed to accepting the challenge of guarding the eventual Finals MVP down the stretch.

What Bryant said about James in 2018 could be applied to James' whole career, including the Lakers' lackluster, excuse ridden 2023 season: "And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now..." 

In Tim Grover's lexicon, Kobe Bryant was a "Cleaner": "When things go wrong and everyone else starts to panic, the Cleaner is calm and unflappable, cool and steady, never too high or too low, never too happy or too depressed. He never sees problems, only situations to resolve, and when he finds the solution, he doesn't waste time explaining it. He just says, 'I got this.'"

If you understand the game, then you can articulate various reasons why Kobe Bryant was a greater player than LeBron James. If you don't understand the game but are willing to play "the game"--the influence peddling game of promoting certain narratives--then you can make a lot of money being paid to tout nonsense!

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM



At Friday, April 07, 2023 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

With very few exceptions, the NBA media trips over themselves to defend LeBron James and they are painfully unaware of their flagrant hypocrisy. Throughout his career they have smugly proclaimed that he can "win with anyone" and then in the same breath will whine about how he "doesn't have enough help/doesn't have the right supporting cast", not understanding that it's impossible for both of those to be true. If he truly can win with anyone than his supporting cast is irrelevant.

As for James himself, it's so irritating when he makes excuses for himself because he doesn't have to. The media already does it for him and he knows they do. It seems that he and the media have conspired to create a universe where he is given all the credit in victory but none of the blame in defeat. I know that many people, including James himself, refer to him as the "King" and he certainly is the "King" of one thing, as you noted; the phony, exaggerated "comeback" effort when his team is about to lose. This is especially true in playoff games when the other team concedes wide open layups and dunks in exchange for free throws on the other end. James absolutely feasts in these scenarios and can add numerous empty points to his game total.

At Friday, April 07, 2023 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The complicating factor here is that LeBron James is a great player. He is not James Harden--an All-Star player elevated to alleged greatness with a combination of permitted flopping, false narratives, and empty calorie statistics--but he is an all-time great who has led his teams to four championships (albeit while accumulating six Finals defeats). LeBron James deserves to be recognized as an all-time great--but he does not deserve to be elevated without question to the title of greatest of all-time, which is what so many media members do.

At Saturday, April 08, 2023 8:05:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


Great read as always. I'm 31 years old now and have been fortunate enough to witness LeBron's entire career since 2003 (when my NBA fandom began in middle school with Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady being my two favorites). I was too young to have followed the late Kobe Bryant's whole career since 1996, but I feel blessed to have seen an all-time great like LeBron from start to whenever his finish is. That being said, I also cannot comprehend or tolerate the mainstream media's gushing coverage of their poster-child. You nailed it on the head once again earlier this year when you stated that LeExcuse only cares about breaking the all-time scoring record, which is still a gargantuan accomplishment, in this 2022-23 season.

Now that Russell Westbrook is no longer a Laker, James and his media sycophants can't point the finger at a new scapegoat, so they'll shift their attention to the scheduling. This is laughable. The NBA has always been set at 82 games for the regular season since the beginning of the sport's time, and pinning the blame on a loss on a back-to-back end game is just an unacceptable excuse coming from a player of his caliber. Side note, I frequently peruse through the NBA statistical leaders and it's frightening/bewildering at how many (or how few) games are played nowadays by the All-Stars/All-NBA players/true superstars. Adam Silver has failed miserably as a commissioner especially in regards to his handling of "load management" (I abhor this term so much now).

I also was commenting to see what your thoughts were about the Dallas Mavericks/Mark Cuban's colossal failure of a season especially after the Kyrie trade. It seems so weird that Cuban had that impromptu media session bemoaning the loss of Jalen Brunson when it's close to the finality of the regular season. You have always been objective of your coverage of Cuban and his ownership. It's wild to me that he gets a pass from the media and even the league office for the Mavericks' disgusting act of tanking and throwing that game vs the Bulls the other night.

It also seems appropriate to me (as a longtime Nets fan) that the basketball gods were super kind to let Brooklyn clinch a playoff spot on the same night that Dallas was eliminated from PLAY-IN (not even a real playoff spot) contention. Anyways, I wanted to reiterate to see what your thoughts were about Cuban and the Mavericks; I was anticipating a post from you about this issue.

At Saturday, April 08, 2023 10:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you!

The NBA schedule has been 82 games for over 50 years, but not literally forever. Prior to that, it was 81 games, and even shorter if you go back to the 1950s.

If there is actual science to support "load management" in terms of protecting players' health, then the NBA and the Players Association should agree to reduce the season to whatever a "safe" number of games is, with the expectation that healthy players will show up for work every day just like the rest of us do.

I plan to write about the Mavericks, but the NBA just opened an investigation of the team's most recent tanking efforts (Cuban has been fined for this nonsense before) so I am waiting to see the outcome of the investigation before I weigh in on the issue (everyone knows where I stand, but I would like to see the NBA punish Cuban for being a repeat offender).


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