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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is worth a lot, that much is obvious.
He was worth the Los Angeles Lakers forking out $153.3 million in salary over a four-year contract.
He’s so good that he also was worth effectively handing over the keys to the franchise, reimagining the squad in a way that met with his approval and going after free agents (like Anthony Davis) that met his specifications.
He’s been worth a lot to the folks who count such things as jersey sales and season ticket acquisitions, and those who monitor the level of media attention a club is receiving and who like seeing lots of celebrities in the prohibitively priced courtside seats.
He’s worth a lot to his sponsors and business partners. He’s worth a lot to CBS, which has optioned his television show Million Dollar Mile.
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He’s worth a lot because he owns part of the English soccer club Liverpool and a slice of Blaze Pizza and because the Forbes list says so.
And, if the Lakers’ season continues in its current vein, by the time the campaign wraps on April 10, it looks likely that signing James will have been worth precisely nothing to the team’s win column.
With nine games to go, it takes very little imagination to foresee a situation whereby the 32-41 Lakers finish with an equal or worse record than the miserable mark of 35-47 that they mustered last season.
“It is not what we signed up for but during the year things happen,” James said. “You don’t even try to wrap your head around it, you just keep pushing.”
Even with James on board, the Lakers will miss the playoffs and end up with a record that, in the Western Conference at least, sets you up for a silent summer instead of a crack at the postseason.
That much was essentially guaranteed by the team sleepwalking out of the All-Star break and somehow getting even worse, and formalized by a Friday faux pas at home to the Brooklyn Nets, when defeat was iced by James slipping and spilling the ball out of bounds while driving late.
Last season, attaining 35 wins was actually something of an achievement, for a squad possessing nil in the way of star power. Once James decamped from the Cleveland Cavaliers a complete transformation was not expected, although a 48-win effort was bandied around as a popular predictor.
The Lakers won’t get close to that, nor to .500 parity. The 2017-18 mark is the only thing to shoot for. Anything less than those three requisite wins, obviously, and the Lakers will have managed the impossible by adding James and actively going backward.
If you ask anyone at the organization to explain it, there is a common thread. They all talk about injuries, and do so with more enthusiasm than many of them have shown on the court lately.
“One thing you can’t control is injuries,” James added. “We talked from the beginning how our depth would be a huge part of our team. We have just had bodies and bodies and bodies down. It is hard to have any kind of rhythm or chemistry.”
Yes, there has been a painful litany of injury complaints. Brandon Ingram was shut down due to a blood clot, Lonzo Ball because of a bad ankle. James’ Christmas Day groin strain took the sting out of the season. Rajon Rondo missed a sizable spell. JaVale McGee contracted pneumonia.
With all that in mind, does this season’s eventual record even matter?
It should. This losing epidemic isn’t a temporary blip for the Lakers. The team has now spent six seasons outside of the playoffs, winning just 126 combined games over the five former campaigns. A winning culture is not ingrained, it needs to be discovered and built, piece by piece. The sooner that starts, the better.
No one expected this to be a year of title contention, but the Lakers were supposed to be better than what we’ve seen. Or at least better than before, you could reasonably have demanded, given that they added one of the best players in the sport.
Instead, they are crawling toward the finish line, with James on a minutes restriction for a team that’s playing worse than clubs that are tanking.
It’s ugly and it could get uglier, with the final five games coming against opponents that are playoff bound.
Maybe things will improve eventually, maybe next season will be a fresh start. Maybe squad strengthening will permit James to show his true value. Maybe, maybe and maybe. But this season, in terms of the most important currency in sports — wins — he has been worth … nothing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno