LeBron James Proves Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers Still Aren't Title Contenders

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2013

January 17, 2013;  Los Angeles, CA, USA;     Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) dunks in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Some fans may still be hoping that the Los Angeles Lakers will turn things around and go on a magical title run this season, but LeBron James let them all know that such a thing will not happen in 2013.

His Miami Heat faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers in a highly anticipated showdown on Jan. 17, with the defending champions pulling off a 99-90 victory in an absolute dogfight of a game. Despite an underwhelming season, the Lakers were in the game up until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. That is, they were until James went into overdrive.

The reigning MVP reminded everyone just why he has that status, grabbing a key rebound and sinking a key jumper in the final frame. James finished the night with 39 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, and in doing so exposed the many flaws of the Lakers.

Los Angeles may have a championship team on paper, but it is nowhere near a contending team yet.

First, let's have a look at the Miami Heat. They are headlined by their key trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and head coach Erik Spoelstra relies on them to carry the offense. This season, the team's Big Three is responsible for 62.6 percent of the offense.

When the deadly trio is not on the floor, Miami looks to a second unit laden with three-point shooters. Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Shane Battier are the faces of this crew, and Rashard Lewis makes an appearance every so often. Throw in a solid defensive point guard in Mario Chalmers, and the Heat are an excellent team on paper.

This is what the Los Angeles Lakers have in common with Miami. They have the talent, especially once Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are factored into the mix, but look nothing like a championship team. After landing both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard over the offseason, the Lakers are 17-22 and three-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference.

To give a general idea of the team's offensive talent, the Lakers' "Big Four" generates 67.9 percent of the overall scoring. Of that percentage, Bryant is responsible for 43.7 percent.

The fact that those four are producing just five percent more than what Miami's key trio is producing in terms of total offense is very telling, not to mention that Bryant himself is responsible for nearly half of that number. In a Mike D'Antoni system known for having many offensive weapons, the Lakers still look as one-sided as they have since winning their last championship in 2010.

Granted, the Lakers' struggles this season are not entirely the players' fault. Former head coach Mike Brown attempted to employ the Princeton offense at the start of the season, but that failed miserably and led to a 1-4 start. He was fired and replaced with offensive guru Mike D'Antoni, who had spent four seasons coaching Nash in Phoenix.

But wait, the problems were not over yet. While Brown was still coach, Nash fractured his leg and missed a month and a half. Seeing as how D'Antoni's pick-and-roll-heavy offense depends on an experienced point guard to set the plays, the Lakers were initially hit-or-miss in the new system before going into a slump.

Since D'Antoni took over the helm, the Lakers have gone 12-17. Even with Nash back in the lineup, the team has no identity and has endured a six-game losing streak. Not even star scorer Kobe Bryant, one of the best players in NBA history, can help the Lakers now.

That is, he can help them should he choose to.

This is where the importance of LeBron James to Miami comes in. Yes, the man is an incredible scorer, but he is really so much more than that. To go with his 26.3 points per game this season, he has also posted 8.1 rebounds and seven assists to go with 1.7 steals.

As we saw in Miami's victory over Los Angeles on Jan. 17, James was doing absolutely everything he could to keep the Heat in the game. He was chasing loose balls, playing tough defense and distributing on top of scoring points.

The three-time MVP was showing that in important and/or critical situations, he will lead. Knowing that he has their backs, his teammates are confident enough to play their own game from start to finish, and, if necessary, get him the ball in the fourth quarter or whenever Miami needs to close or widen a gap.

As a result, the Heat have the appearance of a team that can contend regularly.

Their superstars have played and succeeded together, everyone knows their role, and head coach Erik Spoelstra's system is specifically designed to tailor everyone's strengths while compensating for the team's weaknesses—namely in the rebounding department. The presence of solid low-post guys like Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem allows for pesky defense, while shooters like Ray Allen and Mike Miller give the Heat the ability to ice the game and shift momentum in the blink of an eye.

The Lakers cannot say the same about their team. More often than not, they are content to let Bryant control the offense from start to finish. Instead of utilizing Nash, Howard and Gasol to the best of their abilities, it's as though the team's confidence is shaken from the get-go, so they turn to Bryant immediately.

As a result, in the event that Bryant has an off shooting night, the Lakers have basically sunk themselves. The team dynamic is kind of there, but not on the level it should be—especially in an offense that relies so heavily on a solid passing game.

This lack of confidence does not reside in any contending teams.

In fact, it can be argued that the veteran Lakers are playing like a squad of inexperienced youngsters. A new defensive approach helped them defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks in their games preceding the one against the Heat, and taking on the defending champions was to be the team's ultimate test.

Because the team as a whole has zero confidence on offense outside of Bryant, the Lakers failed this test miserably. The score may have been close, but the fact that the Lakers committed 20 turnovers to the Heat's six says it all. The players have no idea what to do on offense, so they play hot potato with the ball and hope for the best.

This leads to mistakes—ones that should not be made by a championship-caliber team. The fact of the matter is that the Lakers have enough veteran and championship experience on the roster that they should be blowing the opposition out of the water. They should be using Bryant the same way that Miami uses James, looking to him in important situations while allowing everyone else to play their respective games.

Instead, they look to him to be the savior from the opening tip all the way until the final buzzer. Last I checked, basketball was a team game that relied on an equal effort from everyone in the quest for a title.

The Heat have gotten this formula right with James, and that is why they are sitting atop the Eastern Conference while the Lakers are struggling to stay afloat out west.