LeBron James eliminated in first round for first time in NBA career, but his title window is far from closed

In this business, it’s not often that you find yourself writing words you’ve never before written. But here it is: LeBron James has been eliminated from the NBA playoffs in the first round. In his 14 previous postseason appearances, that had never happened. Until now. The Phoenix Suns are moving on after a 113-100 Game 6 victory over the Lakers on Thursday. 

Naturally, the takes around this development are going to be scorching hot. LeBron finished the series averaging 23.3 points, his fourth-lowest scoring output for a series over his career and his lowest mark since averaging 22.8 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. Surely this means he’s done as a superstar, right? 

Wrong. That’s not even close to true. 

What’s also not true is that the Lakers and LeBron deserve a pass for this result. Forget all the “it was a tough year” talk. The supposed bubble hangover isn’t to blame, either. The Lakers were collectively hobbled. LeBron wasn’t 100 percent. Anthony Davis couldn’t even finish the series. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed time. The Suns were hurt, too. Chris Paul played with one arm. Phoenix won. Had the Lakers been healthy, I would’ve bet on them. 

And I’ll bet on them again next season, assuming health. Perhaps that’s an assumption that can’t be made. James will be 37 years old and in his 19th season. Davis is constantly hurt. But you can never predict injuries, and the point is, this first-round loss is not indicative of the Lakers’ short-term future. 

I will say, LeBron’s will was disappointing in this series. I don’t know exactly how much of that to attribute to his health. His ankle clearly isn’t fully right. His vertical explosion was missing, which was even more pronounced in the tight quarters that Frank Vogel largely created with huge lineups that lack shooting. But he was passive for far too much of this series. There is zero disputing that. 

LeBron should’ve been playing with four shooters when Davis was out. Davis should’ve been playing the five when he was in. LeBron needed maximum space to get into bully mode without his normal lift. Vogel made it too easy for Phoenix to pack the paint. The Lakers should’ve gone smaller, and played faster, more often. In transition, deploying straight-line speed, coast-to-coast stuff, LeBron looked like LeBron. 

Let’s not do with LeBron what “experts” have been trying to do with Tom Brady for years. These premature eulogies are a bad look. LeBron is still more than capable of leading a team to a championship, and Davis is still capable of being the best player in the world on any given night when he’s healthy. Before LeBron’s injury, he was playing at an MVP level on both ends of the floor. The Lakers looked very much like title contenders, if not the favorite. That didn’t just go away in a few months. 

If you want to call this the beginning of the end for LeBron as an unstoppable force, fine. At some point, he won’t be able to do the things he has always been able to do. There are small indications that it’s already happening. His increased reliance on 3-pointers, for one. There is something striking about watching him stand off the ball as his team is getting routed and either not choosing to, or not being able to, do something about it. 

But it can be a long route from the beginning of the end to the actual end. If you’re going to buy into the rationale that LeBron suffered this season from a short offseason, then the reverse is true, as well. He’ll now get more offseason rest than he’s had in years. 

So, yeah, LeBron James isn’t going anywhere. And neither are the Lakers.

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