ATLANTA — It wasn’t that long ago — 15 days, to be exact — that Tom Brady sat behind a podium at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena on the NFL’s Super Bowl Opening Night and smoothly handled all the love, adulation and attempted humor that came his way.
Tuesday night in the same arena, just a few feet from where Brady had set up, LeBron James didn’t exactly hear songs of praise:
Yes, that’s Atlanta’s let-the-world-burn fan contingent, shouting, “Kobe’s better!” at James. He responded by … well, by failing to lead his team to a win in a 117-113 loss to the highly beatable Hawks.
And the stark difference in receptions for the reigning GOATs of two sports only served to prove an irrefutable point: The Patriots are 2019 America’s dynasty. But the Lakers, with their constant news churn, self-inflicted drama, pervasive uncertainty and continuous expectation of future greatness, are truly 2019 America’s team.
Consider what’s happened with this team just since last Saturday:
- James, the generational superstar, got caught sitting apart from his teammates, a visual metaphor for a team that’s very much divided between one icon and eleven redshirts.
- He also set off understandably touchy Lakers fans by saying, “There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake.” Hey, that’s fine for you, LeBron, but what about us?
- A near locker-room mutiny apparently erupted when head coach Luke Walton reportedly called out several players for lackadaisical play, and the players clapped back at Walton’s strategy and playing time distribution.
- An absolute disemboweling at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, a 42-point loss that marked James’ worst-ever defeat as a pro … and, honestly, probably the worst of his entire life.
- A failed attempt to deal for Anthony Davis, an edging-out-on-the-thin-ice maneuver that involved theoretically shipping out an entire starting lineup, in turn resulted in a disenchanted array of role players.
- LaVar Ball has spent the last couple weeks treating the Los Angeles Lakers like a little-league dad shouting from the other side of a chain-link fence, scorching Walton, the management and everyone within the blast radius of his mouth.
- A buzzer-beater over hated rival Boston was immediately followed by a deflating 23-point woodshedding at the hands of the Sixers that obliterated any shred of leftover goodwill.
- A possible new charge of tampering popped up thanks to Magic Johnson, who just can’t stop singing hosannas to players regardless of whether they, you know, play for him or not.
- Magic also steered into his essential Magic-ness by saying that he’ll solve locker-room chemistry problems — and start the playoff run — with a round of hugs.
- Which brings us at last to Tuesday night, when the team got trash-talked by one of the most, well, let’s be polite and say “flighty” fan bases in the league. Sure, LeBron got another triple-double, tying him for fifth all time with Wilt Chamberlain. But still … losing to the Hawks? Really?
That’s a season’s worth of ugly headlines for most teams, but for Los Angeles, it’s a routine 10 days. All this sounds a whole lot like — hold on, let me finish the damn sentence before you run to the comments section to launch your rockets — another present-day collection of celebrities, pseudo-celebrities and assorted hangers-on dominating the news cycle and occupying a prominent position, albeit on the opposite coast, in the American cultural landscape.
Granted, the Lakers aren’t exactly politically aligned with this White House — heck, not even a 40-foot-high wall is going to keep the Warriors out — but there’s a similar sensory overwhelm, a cascade of constant drama, a tumbling array of half-truths and backstabbing and passive-aggressive media leaks between the White House and Staples Center that’s impossible to ignore. (Don’t freak, the political talk ends right here.)
The Lakers have now lost four of their last five, and eight of their last 11. They aren’t yet a full-on dumpster fire — they came into the night only two games out of the eighth playoff spot — but man, is there something stinking and smoldering.
“I could throw that game in the trash,” James said in a terse five-minute media availability after the game, and that’s not all that could go.
The Lakers aren’t just limping into the All-Star break, they’re staggering, bouncing off walls as they go. And the slate doesn’t get any easier after that, with Houston, Milwaukee and — oh, irony — two dates with New Orleans in their first five games back. It’s a long way to go until the postseason, and plenty of time for Los Angeles to find its feet … or stumble face-first into its most critical offseason in a decade.
“These guys will have a lot more time [to rest] than I will, obviously,” James said with a rueful smile, since he’s going to be an All-Star and his teammates are … not. He offered this advice to those teammates: “Get fresh, get your minds right, get your bodies right, with the notion that we’re going to make the playoffs.”
For the Lakers, there are only two states of being: Greatness and Awaiting Greatness. And the latter better not last too long, or knives start getting sharpened. In America, we love watching our heroes rise, and we love even more watching them fall.
LeBron James doesn’t have the answers for this free-fall. Luke Walton doesn’t have the answers. Magic Johnson doesn’t have the answers. LaVar Ball has the answers, but they’re to questions nobody but him is asking.
“We just gotta make the game fun,” Kyle Kuzma said after the Hawks loss. “We just gotta remember why we started playing this game. Play for fun, not as a business and not get too much stress out on the court.”
Look, it’s entirely possible that the Lakers will make things fun again, that they’ll swing a deal to get Davis this summer, and he and James will spend the next couple of years pulling apart the NBA like T-Rexes snarling over a goat. It’s also entirely possible that Davis will end up on the Celtics or Clippers, and James will find himself commanding a misbegotten group of NBA cosplayers, grinding his teeth to paste as he wonders what he’s done to deserve this. Admit it, you know both are real possibilities.