Tis the season: LeBron James and Russell Westbrook play out a Christmas Carol

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A reflection on LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, the Lakers, Christmas and the too-familiar ghosts of past, present and future.

Tis the season at the freshly christened Crypto.com Arena, which really means there are only 82 games of this to endure, and of those 82, some 34 are already in the record. Hope and disappointment are on the wane. The Los Angeles Lakers are two games below treading water. Everything is, or should be, up for grabs. That is to say, the ice feels thin and on the verge of cracking.

You can watch It’s a Wonderful Life one too many times or not enough. The exact number that is right for everyone is impossible to guess. You either haven’t watched enough or you’re well beyond your limit. The angels are harking back and forth for all eternity. The eggnog is spilling. LeBron James is hitting a turnaround jumper from the baseline as his opening salvo against the Brooklyn Nets on Christmas Day.

The story isn’t really about him, not entirely anyway, and the story really isn’t about the Brooklyn Nets either. The story is about that hometown hero George Bailey and what a dim world would exist without him, and this being the dire end of 2021 you could start to wonder what a reboot would look like if you simply resurrected the Hollywood classic with Keanu Reeves and a bunch of Muppets.

Now keep in mind how this kind of thought is the kind of thought you have while checking your phone as the 34th game out of a scheduled 82 drifts into a tv timeout as someone you love and hold dear says something along the lines of “I thought we were going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life” and you would very much like to except you catch a glimpse of Anthony Davis sitting courtside in street clothes and think that unibrow is a work of Jim Henson-like genius and how it’s not easy being tall and at that point, you’re down the rabbit hole and inside the icy confines of the holiday matrix.

Wearing a yellow sweatsuit, Boban Marjanović kneels in a living room. An insurance agent in a red shirt puns on the word rings. Boban tries to wipe water stains from a coffee table. His houseguests supposedly refuse to use coasters. The Lakers appear to be coasting, which is a kind way of saying they are too old and don’t quite fit together the way Muppets should.

Moreover, having insurance is an act of caution: it requires capital in reserve and planning for the future. Insurance ads try to undercut the timid atmosphere with humor that laughs at the bumbling chaos of it all or by making one believe that playing it safe is the same as being the aggressor — take advantage of the great rates and what have you!

When the insurance ad featuring Boban Marjanović ends, a new ad begins with LeBron James asleep on a bed. His hands clasp over his stomach. Both feet touch the ground, but one knee peaks into the air while the other folds to the bed’s dimensions. The room is a lighter yellow than Boban’s sweatsuit, possibly more creamed beige than golden. Then a much more intense LeBron sits upright in a blue light staring dead into the camera. The dreamscape is LeBron’s restless headspace. Rza from the Wu-Tang Clan paces above him while wearing a monk’s robes. Rza tells him sternly, “You need to sleep.” Rza is much cooler than an insurance agent.

Now LeBron sits under a night sky stacking stones of all sizes as if attempting to resurrect a sign for Hermes. He is under a star-filled sky. His thoughts look heavy. He arranges the stones with more skill than he selects teammates for belated championship runs. The Lakers are a bit too heavy, a bit too sleepy. Rza whispers, “Sleep.” LeBron is in a rainforest. LeBron is in a wheat field, or the Sahara. It’s a dreamscape, so it doesn’t really matter and should bend together.

Anyway, he’s in all these places because “greatness lies on the other side of sleep.” West Coast games tend to start too late in the evening if you don’t live on the Pacific rim. They tend to start at a moment when East Coast reality is on the fritz. Reach out and touch a mirror, or any screen really, and reality ripples out from the center of wherever you are pressing. You are a smudge in the middle of it all.

The next ad is for Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. This ad has as much to do with basketball as the ones featuring an insurance agent and a Wu-Tang Clan member. Upon returning to the game’s action, ESPN will announce that the coverage is skipping a beat “due to time restraints.”

The Lakers trail by 15 points and the return to coverage features an interview with Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash, and for most of the interview, Steve Nash discusses “the spirit” of Patty Mills, who is very much a living combo guard and not a dead spirit who visits London bankers on Christmas Eve. In fact, the anachronistic ghost here is Steve Nash, for he cannot visit Los Angeles without conjuring memories of the Lakers past. The end of Kobe Bryant’s career largely went off script because Nash’s back couldn’t hold up the weight of Marley’s chains and no flying harness, yoga routine, massage therapy, prescribed painkiller et al could change that.

And the Lakers bringing on the likes of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Kent Bazemore, Rajon Rondo et al has that same feel to it, except LeBron James isn’t to Los Angeles what Kobe Bryant was and the expectations conjured by Westbrook and Anthony never quite reached the heights of a Sports Illustrated cover shoot that was always more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle than basketball substance.

Superteams, by any measure, are a child’s dreamboat fantasy. When Charles Foster Kane drops the snow globe, he whispers a signifier from his childhood, although the signified may have changed its shape since the days of his youth. Everything, after all, is smoke, from Steve Nash’s spinal column to Melo’s discovery of what it takes to become glue.

“Sleep,” whispers the Rza, and a random thought occurs: Russell Westbrook’s rookie season occurred in the same year that Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to their first championship since he and Shaquille O’Neal parted ways a near half-decade earlier. If it suits you, read that random thought in the voice of Henry Travers. Then hear the Rza whisper: “Sleep.”

You have been visited by many spirits, and there are more on the way.

Russell Westbrook and LeBron James say hello to the ghosts of NBA Christmas past, present and future

Matt Damon stares out at the red surface of Mars and proclaims, “Fortune favors the brave.” The commercial begins with the actor telling viewers how “history is filled with almost.” He says stuff about “embracing the moment” and committing, you assume, to Mars. The ad is for Crypto.com, but it talks about the Romans. You are watching the fall of the Lakers.

The commercial that ran prior to this one starring Matt Damon is for a prequel to the show Yellowstone. Sam Elliot plays the wise sage in this one because he’s Sam Elliot. His voice is to be trusted. He speaks in ultimatums and would make a strong Clarence in your It’s a Wonderful Life reboot. The words “The road West is paved in blood” appear on the screen. Covered wagons and homesteads burn behind them. All of this almost isn’t bullshit. Take the Muppets and run.

Russell Westbrook is at the line between history and Matt Damon’s almost because that’s how it always is for him. He is shooting foul shots. Mike Breen talks about the point guard’s slow start to the season. Mike Breen talks about how Westbrook is slowly turning things around this season. Mike Breen has given variations of this talk a few times this season because the Lakers play a lot of nationally televised games and their season is off to a rough start, but Mike Breen has also given variations of this talk in seasons prior. Russell Westbrook invites certain refrains. There is Yuletide warmth to it all.

The Rza advises, “Sleep,” and you nod your head in the affirmative to whatever Mike Breen is rehearsing in the presence of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, the Statler and Waldorf of the NBA. You, too, have seen this play when it moved through Houston and Washington, D.C. And here Westbrook is in his Los Angeles hometown and the homecoming is a Pottersville, which is to say a potter’s field. You already know what this city and this team have been without him. The Los Angeles Lakers hold more NBA titles than any other franchise in the league’s history. The Los Angeles Lakers are so very desperate and greedy because they hold so many titles already. But the life on this roster is lackluster, if not nonexistent. By season’s end, the team may threaten to go full Noir.

Westbrook dribbles across midcourt. His back straight as any penguin’s as he bounces the ball high off the ice. He slings the ball over to LeBron James barreling down the court’s center alley. No one steps in front of the King’s mighty skid. In the third quarter, the Lakers are down three now. They are coasting.

While the Lakers are currently built for foreclosure, the Nets are a team made for the moment.  And yet the spirit of Patty Mills matters in Brooklyn because there is no matter there. These Brooklyn Nets are not as a collective a product of mutual suffering but a materialization of imported successes. The legacy is neither rooted nor interwoven, and it will eventually vaporize and sign elsewhere. To an extent, these traits aren’t really on them either, but exactly what make them a team made for this particular century. In this sense, they are not that different than these Lakers built on LeBron’s shoulders.

Both these teams are filled with Boomers by degree, and everything about Brooklyn — including the inorganic chessboard of a logo on a ghost gray hardcourt — leans into dystopian sedation. Even Kyrie Irving‘s vaccination dilemma is more blue pill than red, as if he tried to telecommute his role on a basketball team. And, at times, both the Nets and the Lakers feel less like a collection of stars and more like a bundling of insurance policies, not all policies, however, provide equal coverage. A defensive Russell Westbrook has lost his man again.

Still, the Lakers and Nets remain a dream matchup. They were paired together for a Christmas Day matchup. They were given the marquee, and yet watching these two teams play is sort of like watching Morpheus snatch Jimmy Stewart through a hole in the ice and slap-boxing some sense into him. If they ever were to meet for a seven-game series, and that’s a big if given the Lakers coasting, the Kung Fu guru would likely get answers out of the poor building and loan banker. Where have you been your entire life? Bedford Falls. Are you sure? But it would be a very tedious massacre indeed. That is, until, you grew numb to the strain of it all. Then appreciation might set in as the passing of the torch metaphors began to circulate, as is Westbrook, from one Net to the next, until he arrives at his original man in time to see the jump shot nailed over his extended palm.

The only real difference between these two teams, because, admittedly, neither inspires much beyond raiding desperation, is a matter of birthdays. The Nets are a few years younger than the Lakers, and where the latter were wadded together by a desperate lone shark, the former were configured by a Reddit cabal’s blueprint. Either way, there is nothing so romantic as singing dance to the light of the moon and pitching rocks at antique window panes. Everything is more bulldozer and wrecking ball and soon-to-be-abandoned strip mall.

LeBron’s Lakers are a fallen kingdom. Guinevere and Lancelot have already done the deed, and this is all a roster on fire. What’s tragic about this particular act is Russell Westbrook’s foolish fate. He has played well and hard for a number of years, but at some point, the arrow points to empty, the rent becomes due. And sure, Westbrook is not without fault. He’s had dreams that possibly cheated the team goals and his jump shot has always been lost more often than found. But no team for which he was the best player ever underachieved. He deserves credit too.

He managed to grab triple-doubles with one hand while slapping fingerprints on a glass ceiling with the other. His biggest failings were always shared with Kevin Durant and James Harden, and everything else in his career has been unfairly held to that light. The homecoming should be a cakewalk. Bells and angel wings. But that’s not what’s happening here, not in Los Angeles. And that’s not how Bedford Falls works either. George Bailey’s walk is a difficult one — more tightrope than sidewalk — and as much as anyone does he needs help.

Westbrook, though, isn’t George Bailey, at least not in any straightforward sense. Loyalty is a trait in his bag, but so is stubbornness. Show up at his door, and he will most likely chase you away with his endless initiative to be what he’s always been. In other words, trying to see Russ as anything other than himself gets incredibly messy and hard to decipher. Just consider the myriad responses so many have had to his accolades and criticisms alike.

In the last minute of the Christmas Day game between the Los Angeles and Brooklyn, the Lakers almost wrenched a statement game from the jaws of defeat. Instead, though, they ended up getting caught in a zipper’s teeth. The team is built on various brands of hero ball and therefore tends to specialize in heroic death, with the resurrection proving ever more difficult to pull off.

The team had trailed by 23 points with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then things started to change. The defense tightened. Shots started to fall. The epic arc is always waiting. Just don’t coast. “Sleep.” The instructions often abstract the deed.

Patty Mills and LeBron James trade 3s, not for the first time on the night. “Sleep.”

So many moments to go.

LeBron finds Malik Monk for a layup. “Sleep.”

James Harden inbounds the ball to Patty Mills curling off a high screen set by Nic Claxton. Mills pitches the ball back to Harden and sets a screen. Claxton cuts to the rim, looking back all the way. Harden floats a pass from above the elbow. Claxton rises with both arms extended. He dunks the ball over LeBron James, who, on this particular play, and despite getting off the ground, looks too old to wear a crown. The foul adds to the humiliation because the foul didn’t stop the inevitable from happening. The dunk landed with heft — like an ax-head into a stump.

“Sleep,” orders the Rza, but sleep never comes easy on a snowy evening.

And so LeBron James drives to the basket. But he doesn’t find anything there and his team is down three. And so he attempts to find Carmelo Anthony planted on the perimeter, but the pass gets deflected the way passes do and there is Russell Westbrook laying claim to a quest that isn’t really his to make, but being Russ that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

And that’s the thing with Russ — he’s too much to be the one thing and not enough to be the other. He’s the almost with miles to go before he sleeps. He’s the one carrying the ax and is all about indulging the Green Knight tit for tat. These are all Christmas stories. They all Die Hard in their own ways, and he’s rising to the rim, and, once there, he just sort of transforms into whatever happens to a body or a brain when the two are no longer connected by blood or synapse, when one can dream a dunk and envision its execution but simply doesn’t have the power or the reach, or the spring, because it’s winter and all of the above is out of season.

Westbrook did, however, manage a triple-double, his head floating in the ether like the Good Year blimp on a good day, and there was King James, too, his weary arms raised, not really questing, but not coasting either, just a witness to this other man’s struggles. And it’s a wonderful life, isn’t it? A warped Bailey or no Bailey’s, the eggnog is spilling around the rim.

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