Losing takes its toll on LeBron James. This is no secret.
The Los Angeles Lakers great has lamented losing repeatedly while speaking with media in recent weeks. He did so again in an interview with ESPN's Dave McMenamin published Tuesday. This time, the subject came up in the context of James' personal milestones.
As he approaches the end of his career, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands between James and the league's all-time scoring title, and James is on pace to pass the Lakers icon this season. On his way, he has passed other giants of the game, most notably Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone. In each of those games in which James moved up the scoring list, the Lakers lost.
He spoke about those moments with McMenamin.
"I want to win," James said. "That's not sitting well with me. I don’t like having accomplishments, and they don’t feel right when it comes in a losing effort.
"I’ve been trained and born to win. That’s how I started my basketball journey."
James: Last season's scoring title chase felt 'corny'
Last season, James had a shot at the NBA's season-long scoring title. With Anthony Davis sidelined for much of the season, James picked up the scoring load, averaging 30.3 points per game, the second-highest average of his career. The number had him in contention for his second career scoring title.
Players must play 58 games in an 82-game season to qualify for the scoring title, which is based on scoring average rather than total points. But with the Lakers eliminated from the playoffs in a 33-49 season, James sat out the Lakers' last five games and eight of the final 10.
Joel Embiid won the scoring title, with 30.6 points per game, while James ultimately didn't qualify in a 56-game season. He told McMenamin that he didn't want to chase the scoring title during meaningless games at the end of a lost season.
“We’re not gonna make the playoffs no matter what," James continued. "Me being out on the floor trying to go for a scoring record in games that don’t matter — it felt so corny to me. I was like, I’m not gonna be able to qualify because I’m not gonna play any of these games.”
The Lakers have rallied from a 2-10 start this season to climb into playoff contention at 19-22. Entering Tuesday's action, that placed them a game behind the 19-20 Portland Trail Blazers, who would qualify for the West's final play-in spot as the No. 10 seed if the season ended today. There's still hope for the Lakers and James, who has said on multiple occasions that he isn't interested in playing basketball that isn't attached to winning.
"Playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA," James told reporters on Dec. 28. "It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
Those comments came after a loss to the Miami Heat franchise that he led to two championships. He expressed his frustration in less certain but still transparent terms last week in an interview with The Athletic's Sam Amick. The subject then was whether the Lakers should trade future draft assets to build a competitive team now, with the trade deadline approaching.
“Y’all know what the f*** should be happening,” James told at Amick at the end of the interview. “I don’t need to talk.”
James made an effort to walk the comments back in a tweet.
But the sentiment is crystal clear. James is still playing at an extraordinary level at 38 years old, and he's reaping the statistical rewards of a career filled with success and winning. But for the second straight season, he's doing so on a losing team.
And if the Lakers don't play themselves into playoff contention, some of James' achievements — passing Kareem included — will be accompanied by a bitter taste.
"As we sit here right now as a franchise and a team that's below .500, we've been playing some good basketball as of late," James told McMenamin. "We wanna — and I want to — win at the highest level.
"Breaking records or passing greats in a losing effort has never been a DNA of mine."