Lakers' failures cast shadow over LeBron's milestone night
Andrew D. Bernstein / National Basketball Association / Getty

It shouldn't have happened this way.

The most significant individual achievement of LeBron James' season, one of the most emotional statistical achievements of his illustrious career, wasn't supposed to take place on a night his Los Angeles Lakers were run off the floor at home to fall five games under .500, while one of his teammates finished the game sitting closer to 2 Chainz than to the Lakers' bench.

James passing Michael Jordan for fourth on the all-time scoring list should be celebrated in every conceivable way, but no one envisioned James reaching this milestone while the Lakers fizzled down the stretch of a season that can only be labeled a colossal failure.

Through two stops in Cleveland and one memorable run in Miami, James meticulously crafted a legitimate claim to the GOAT status most assumed previously untouchable ever since Michael Jordan shooed Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz away to claim his sixth and final NBA championship 21 years ago.

You may not have appreciated James' assertion that the Cavaliers' epic comeback in the 2016 Finals cemented his status as the greatest of all time, but James even positioning himself within striking distance of His Airness' throne is legendary on its own merit. And make no mistake, he is right there.

James' combination of size, skill, power, efficiency, two-way play, and durability in the modern game puts him head and shoulders above all the stars of yesteryear - except, of course, for Jordan.

You do not move head-and-shoulders clear of Jordan. You put yourself in his stratosphere, then try your damnedest to achieve near perfection in order to inch past him. That's where this season has complicated things for James.

In many ways, that's unfair. Jordan never even played a 16th season; James is averaging 27 points, 8.7 rebounds, eight assists, and 1.6 steals in his 16th campaign, a "down year" for his standards.

LeBron's longevity as the most dominant force in the game has also made him susceptible to a higher standard of criticism. No one knocked Jordan for missing the playoffs with the 2002 and 2003 Wizards, because no one expected a 38- or 39-year-old Jordan, in seasons No. 14 and 15, to lead them anywhere. Few cared that the Lakers were 8-15 when Kobe Bryant supplanted Jordan in scoring more than four years ago, because a 36-year-old Mamba on his last legs, and a bad Lakers team, is exactly what fans had signed up for.

That James was expected to lead a young, ill-fitting Lakers team - and a franchise in the midst of its longest postseason drought ever - to the playoffs, in season No. 16, at age 34, with more than 56,000 NBA minutes under his belt, is a testament to his sustained greatness.

But expect him to do that, we did. And when you've entered Jordan's orbit, when you're creeping closer to undisputed GOAT status, the one thing you can't do is fall short of expectations. Astronomical numbers aside, for the first time in his regular-season career, James has done just that.

His broad shoulders shouldn't bear the entire weight of blame for the Lakers' disappointing season. This year has been an organizational failure from top to bottom for Los Angeles.

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka built a questionable roster devoid of shooting and defense to complement James. The Lakers' young talent didn't develop as rapidly as many hoped. The team fractured, then cratered, under the pressure and tension of trade rumors tying those youngsters to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. And of course, James missed more time than at any other point in his career when a serious groin injury forced him off the court on Christmas Day and sidelined him until the last day of January.

That said, LeBron at full throttle gets this Lakers team into the playoffs. Whether it's age, health, those aforementioned minutes catching up to him, or a less acceptable excuse, even the staunchest defenders of James' legacy must admit that he hasn't gone full throttle enough this season, particularly since returning from injury, and especially for a prolific playoff performer who has supposedly activated playoff mode.

There have been too many possessions taken off, too many defensive assignments missed, too many moments where it appeared James was disengaged from his team, for this milestone to carry the immediate weight it should have.

James leapfrogging Jordan in scoring was supposed to be a monumental component of the latest chapter in his quest to usurp Jordan overall - part of a storybook debut season in Hollywood, with the backdrop of James restoring glory to the league's marquee franchise. Instead, impressive as James' individual feat is, it comes in the shadow of one of the most disappointing seasons in Lakers history, and one that he'll forever be tied to.

This moment was supposed to be another step on James' journey toward a summit even Jordan couldn't touch. Instead, the moment comes amidst a season that has only emboldened MJ truthers.

The milestone itself is fit for a king. The disappointing season and the noise around it, which James has contributed to, are not.

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Lakers' failures cast shadow over LeBron's milestone night
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