FOX Sports NBA reporter
In a viral video with over seven million views, LeBron James appears to be overcome with fatigue during a Christmas game against the Dallas Mavericks. He slows his dribbling to a crawl and nods his head angrily.
A split second later, James changes gears, blowing past Davis Bertans and Christian Wood and separating several defenders before making a reverse layup like he’s Moses and she’s the Red Sea.
A woman who works for Nike named Jasmine Watkins retweeted the video, writing that “that’s how the old heads get you,” adding that they “act like that [are] tired and then take a step to the edge.” Her comment reached James himself, who responded with five emoticons of a face that laughs so hard it cries and wrote “FACTS”.
It was insightful.
As James turns 38 on Friday, he’s still playing MVP basketball, something unprecedented for his age. Michael Jordan lost strength as he got older. Tim Duncan became the fourth or fifth option in San Antonio.
James defies Father Time by averaging 27.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists in his 20th season in the league, the oldest player to have posted those numbers StatHead. In order to do this, we are witnessing a combination of intelligence, skill, physical ability, and cunning so rare that it should be widely recognized and reverentially celebrated, like an eclipse that occurs only once in a generation.
But instead his greatness is wasted in the twilight of his career, slipping through the cracks like a world-renowned violinist playing a set on a New York City subway while passers-by unknowingly rush through their day.
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The problem is that it’s difficult to celebrate greatness when a team is near the bottom of the league. The Lakers are currently 13th in the Western Conference, just 3.5 games ahead of bottom-bottomed Houston Rockets. Without Anthony Davis, who is out indefinitely with a stress injury, the Lakers have lost five of their last six contests.
Simply put, the Lakers’ badness drowned out James’ greatness.
At Christmas, for example, James led all scorers with a 38-point performance on 56.6% shooting. But the story of the night was that the Lakers were outplayed 51-21 in the third quarter as they fell 124-115.
As the trade deadline nears, the question the Lakers face is simple: Will they sacrifice first-round picks and make a trade to give James a fighting chance at victory now? Or will they book this season as a lost cause, salvage their fortunes and attempt to rejuvenate the team over the summer?
If they choose the latter, they’re committing a kind of basketball crime. You will be wasting one of the most impressive age-defying feats of an athlete in any sport.
It’s clear that James’ patience is running out.
He is a four-time NBA champion who has led both the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals eight straight seasons. He’s not used to losing.
“I want to win and give myself a chance to still fight for championships,” James told reporters Wednesday after the Lakers fell 112-98 in the Heat. “…Playing basketball at this level just to play basketball isn’t in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
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You can’t blame James for his growing frustration.
Though he’s still at his best, he knows he needs help. For the first time in his career, he has referred to himself as the second option behind Davis. And throughout this season he’s practically asked for help.
In October, he conceded that the Lakers weren’t “built for great shooting.” Then, after Davis injured his right foot, James said last week, “We’re already a team without much length and not much height.”
So if they don’t have a shoot, length or size then what do they have?
It’s clear that an aging star and an often tied star just aren’t enough, even if they are two of the best players in the world. The fact of the matter is the Lakers need defense (they’re 22nd in the league) and they need to shoot (they’re 25th on 3-point percentage).
Despite the Lakers’ challenges, James has tried to take the team on his shoulders.
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He recently had seven straight 30-point appearances. He still dives with the power of a freight train, agilely splitting defenders with dribbling shots, cracking the boards like he’s a decade younger, and throwing passes that show an unparalleled sense of foresight on the pitch.
The thing is, it’s no coincidence that James is playing so well two years before his 40th birthday. So much time and thought has gone into what we see now, which also helps explain his very understandable frustration. During this season, James was particularly thoughtful when asked about his stamina, often sharing insights into his process over the years.
He recently said that in his first 12 seasons in the league he can rely on “superduper athleticism” and doesn’t need to be “like dialed in” in the game.
“I could go out and just figure things out once I jumped in the air,” he said, adding, “I would be up there a lot longer than you.”
But James always knew that wasn’t sustainable in the long run. So he made a point of expanding his game so he could be the best player in the world even as his hangtime decreased. He said he actually used opposing coaches as tools to help him in that process, studying the way they chose to defend him so he could shore up all the holes in his game.
“Coach Pop helped me by constantly going under pick-and-rolls,” James said in early December. “Dwane Casey and the defense he had against me when we faced Dallas in the finals in Miami helped me. Rick Carlisle, part of it. So a lot of these coaches helped me get better because I knew it was okay with me, to be the best player I can be and one of the greatest of all time, I couldn’t have a weakness.”
James also revealed a few weeks ago that he’s focused on keeping his body sharp since he was in elementary school. From the age of 10, James said he would stretch both before he fell asleep and when he woke up. And in high school, he said he was one of the few kids who would make ice cream after games.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached James for four seasons from 2010 to 2014, told reporters Wednesday that James was at the forefront of taking care of his mind and body in the league, adding that he would do even small things to stay focused, like keeping his locker tidy. He also said James is incredibly ahead of the curve when it comes to learning new skills.
“He would see something and work on it for a day and then he would try it in a game and it would look like he’d been working on it for a couple of years,” Spoelstra said. “That’s how quickly he could pick something up and apply it.”
But the question is, how much longer can that last?
Although James still defies the laws of time, there’s almost a sense of dread watching him play now knowing that the sand is falling through the hourglass quickly.
And unless the Lakers make some serious changes soon, such an incredible athletic achievement will go to waste.
Clearly, while James’ body holds up, his mind can only absorb so much of what’s going on around him.
James made that clear after the Lakers lost at Christmas.
“How many times are you going to try to dig yourself out before there’s too much dirt on you?” he asked.
The clock is ticking for James.
The pressure is mounting for the Lakers to give James the chance he deserves.
And for the rest of us, we better understand what’s happening before our eyes before it’s too late.
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Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has 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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