“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” — Michael Jordan
Tuesday was supposed to be a special night at Crypto.com Arena and for three quarters, it was. Denzel Washington and Bad Bunny were courtside. More than 200 media credentials were issued. Showtime royalty was in the building. Each time LeBron James entered the game, the energy spiked. When he got the rock, fans cheered. With each free throw, chants of MVP came raining down. It was a blast. For three quarters. In the fourth, it was back to being business as usual — careless turnovers, nonexistent defense, stagnant offense. On the night James became the league’s all-time scorer, the Lakers gave up 133 points and turned the ball over 21 times. It was a two-possession game with 17.9 seconds left when fans started to leave while James sat on the end of the bench, drawing the same conclusion as those walking out: we’re not winning.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 94-85 loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal, James said this about his pending free agency: “I want to win. That’s my only thing, my only concern. It’s all about winning for me, and I think the Cavs is committed to doing that, but at the same time I’ve given myself options to this point.”
The following season he left for Miami.
And no player has won more games since — a run highlighted by a 27-game win streak, eight consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and four rings. The basketball world is abuzz about James’ next stat: highest-scoring player in the NBA, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Here’s what we’re hearing less about: As of Tuesday morning, James was one victory away from moving into a tie with Dirk Nowitzki for all-time wins in regular season play, at 916 — to trail only five other players in NBA history. At some point next season he’ll probably pass Karl Malone (952) and John Stockton (953). He won’t have a chance to catch up to Tim Duncan (1,001) or Robert Parish (1,014) until the 2024-25 season at the earliest.
The man at the top of the list? The great Abdul-Jabbar himself, of course, with 1,074 wins. (Michael Jordan is not in the top 25, according to Statmuse, in case you were wondering.) So the all-time scoring title may be James’, but the game’s greatest winner has almost 160 victories over him in the regular season.
Prior to coming to Los Angeles, James surpassing Abdul-Jabbar in total wins felt inevitable. Today, not so much.
After a stretch in which his teams won at least 50 games in eight of 10 seasons, the kid from Akron has reached that mark only once in his last four in L.A. — and it’s not looking great this year either. In fact, James has had more coaches in L.A. (three) than winning seasons (two). For an athlete who said winning is his “only concern,” his record as a Laker has to concern him.
The season when Abdul-Jabbar passed Wilt Chamberlain to become the all-time leading scorer, the Lakers went to the Finals. Right now, the play-in game is about the best James can hope for — not exactly an exclamation point to a historic season.
Of course, injuries have had a lot to do with the disappointing results. Both he and running mate Anthony Davis have missed significant time since the 2020 championship.
But there is also something to be said about a front office that blew up that championship roster, punctuated by the decision to let their glue guy — Alex Caruso — walk in free agency.
There is something to be said about a front office that now adds Kyrie Irving to the growing list of available All Stars the team has been unable to land.
And there is something to be said about a franchise that really has struggled to build a consistent winner since Phil Jackson retired in 2011.
As Jordan noted, it takes teamwork and intelligence to win championships. But that observation isn’t just about the players. Clarity and cohesion from ownership to the front office to coaching staff is also part of that equation. For the Lakers, that has all dissipated nearly as quickly as it appeared. As a result, James, who is averaging a remarkable 30 points per game on 50% shooting for the second consecutive season, is being painfully reminded that talent has it limits.
He doesn’t need the Lakers’ front office to score, but he does need it to win consistently. And he for sure needs it to win championships.
James initially left Cleveland because he didn’t believe that front office could get its act together. And he famously signed short-term contracts so that he could leave any franchise with a less-than-ideal front office. Now the 38-year-old is faced with the prospect of spending the next two seasons padding scoring stats but losing the consistency he needs in the W column to surpass Abdul-Jabbar as the sport’s greatest winner.
Even if the Lakers finish at .500 in each of the final two years of James’ deal, he’ll be another season away from catching Abdul-Jabbar. By then he’ll be in his 40s and even more dependent on the front office for success. It’s a part of the “GOAT” narrative that players have little control over, but it’s as big a factor in their legacy as their own level of play. James isn’t a victim of the Lakers’ struggles: His free throw shooting has been spotty at times, he’s the league’s all-time leader in turnovers, and let’s just say he’s had his say on personnel moves throughout the years. But this franchise was struggling before he got there, so in some ways this is the equivalent of Jordan’s Washington Wizards years. Except this is the Lakers. No offense to the good folks out East, but more is expected here. He knew that before signing.
It’s a conundrum, to say the least. Championships aren’t won on talent alone, and it takes more than the players to build a winner. For most of his career James has been able to find the right combination of front-office competency and brilliant play to score more than anyone else in NBA history while winning a ton of games. But becoming the game’s all-time scorer can’t feel that great if it comes with a lot of losing. Especially for a player who says winning is all that matters to him.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.