- LeBron James took a huge leap by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
- His supporting cast is talented, but it’s young and comes with some baggage (ahem, LaVar Ball).
- The Lakers are an iconic franchise. Winning in LA would solidify LeBron’s legacy. Failing there might tarnish it a bit.
- Moving out West means playing the Warriors four times per year and a much harder road to the Finals.
LeBron James’ latest gambit carries with it the highest price of any decisions he has made.
When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, he knew the fallout would be devastating, but raising his profile and joining a superteam was worth that price. When he returned to Cleveland in 2014, he took on a franchise lost in the woods for a chance to bring basketball salvation to his hometown.
But this? LeBron James’ decision to join the Lakers on a four-year, $153.3 million deal?
This is the biggest bet he’s ever made.
LeBron is betting he can find a way to a title with the shell of a contender
This Lakers team … is not good without him. It can be good. It might be good down the line. There’s a lot of promise. But even with the 12th-best defense, the Lakers finished 27th in offense and 21st in Net Rating. They won 35 games, even after an unsustainable hot start in November, albeit with considerable injury issues.
James suffered through his first season back in Cleveland trying to understand and morph the work habits of his younger co-stars, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.
These Lakers aren’t just younger than that group, they’re even goofier. The team came to terms with Lance Stephenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on one-year deals. Shocker: KCP is a Klutch Sports client, the same agency LeBron is with, and by with, I mean “runs with Rich Paul.”
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James (center), Kyle Kuzma (right).
KCP is basically the new JR Smith, a gunner with questionable shot selection. He’s a better defender than Smith was at his age, but not as great of a shooter.
Brook Lopez will likely return on some sort of deal, but his role will become smaller and smaller, considering how perimeter- and smallball-oriented the league has become.
This won’t be the roster by next summer, of course. The coming days could see a trade of several of these young players for Kawhi Leonard. That forms more of a foundation, but there will still be plenty of spots to fill. The roster was constructed as a plucky squad of kiddos, and in the coming months, James will work to reshape it. (And by “James,” I mean “Magic Johnson and the Lakers front office and definitely not LeBron James who isn’t the GM at all.”) Doing so on the fly, in the West, is a lot tougher than it was in the East. There’s risk there.
If the Lakers don’t make monstrous strides? They’ll still make the playoffs. No matter what, LeBron James is not missing the postseason. After that, though, the variance of outcomes is much wider, and losing in the first round after this kind of decision comes with real consequences.
LeBron is betting he can withstand the circus
Lonzo Ball is actually a quiet kid with what seems like a good head on his shoulders. But he is also someone who performs diss tracks on teammates and whose father is LaVar Ball, essentially the NBA’s carnival barker. Unless the Lakers trade Lonzo for Leonard or another star, LaVar’s circus will continue to loom large.
The Lakers might be able to work something out, given the opportunity that James will provide for the Balls to improve their brand, but LaVar has also shown no ability to restrain himself. Any struggles his son suffers alongside James will be under a microscope and result in comments from the father. Any success Lonzo has will eventually lead to comments about how LeBron gets too much credit.
This is going to be a thing.
The rest of the roster is a bunch of kids who are constantly dunking on each other on Twitter and posting diss tracks. It’s a fun, happy-go-lucky group, which is awesome when you’re learning to play in the NBA and growing together. That changes when LeBron James shows up and you’re competing for an NBA title from Day 1. It’s a business now. James will have to help manage all that.
Then there’s just the Lakers-ness of it. The LA factor. The Los Angeles media isn’t brutal; it’s not New York or Boston. But there’s a circus factor to it, and it will be bigger and wilder than it was in Miami or Cleveland. Now, LeBron is used to this. He’s lived in it since he was 15. And in many ways, James is above it. He gets to dictate when and where the spotlight shines. However, it’s one more thing to distract him, one more pressure on the team. This is an intense magnifying glass, even for a team in LA, even for a LeBron team, to be under.
Did I mention LaVar Ball exists?
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James (left), Lonzo Ball (right).
LeBron is betting his legacy is invincible
You will be hearing a lot in the coming days about what it means for James to join a franchise like this. The Heat have been good for roughly 20 years under Pat Riley. They have a good culture, they have had great teams, they have been wildly successful, with three titles. But they are not the Lakers.
The Cavaliers’ only claim to greatness is literally the result of LeBron James having been born in nearby Akron.
So this is the first time he’s played for an iconic franchise, and that’s a special experience.
It also comes with special risks. If James fails here, he fails a tradition of greatness that he will be judged against. He walks in the shadow of Mikan and West, Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe. Lakers exceptionalism, quite frankly, is obnoxious, but it’s based in reality. It does mean something different to play under those lights at Staples, to don the purple and gold.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James.
LeBron is betting that he won’t fail, but if he does, that he can’t slip. However, if he doesn’t win a title with the Lakers, no matter how much better the Warriors are — and boy, are they better — Lakers fans will position that failure against the successes of Kobe Bryant in particular. You can be King in LA, and the weather’s beautiful, and the celebrities are glamorous, and it’s a fun time … but you better win.
James, of course, has reason to believe he can win, but this is going to be harder than it was in Cleveland. There’s no Kyrie Irving here. The Lakers can trade for Leonard and add a superstar in free agency next summer, but it’s still the West. James plays in the same division as the team that has beaten him, handily at points, in three of the past four Finals. Winning in LA would mean something different and help solidify his status as the second-best player ever. Losing, though, would carry with it a different weight as well.
LeBron is betting he can keep beating Father Time
James was magnificent in Year 15 last season. He deserves all the praise in the world for how magnificent he was, with that kind of workload. You could see the signs it’s starting to wear on him, however. He was open about his exhaustion in the playoffs. His defense slipped to the lowest point of his career; he regularly took whole possessions off.
James could’ve joined Houston, where he would have shared the load with Chris Paul and James Harden, or Philadelphia with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Instead, he chose the Lakers.
Lonzo Ball is a pure point who isn’t ball-dominant. Kyle Kuzma is a pick-and-pop triggerman. If the Lakers re-sign Julius Randle, he’s a versatile Swiss Army knife player in the making. Brandon Ingram is very much a tip-of-the-spear pure scorer.
If the Lakers add Leonard, then, sure, Kawhi can take a share of the possessions. But Leonard, too, is very much built as the endpoint of the offense, even if that’s isolation. The Spurs used him off screens, in the post, etc. He’s not a creator, which means James is still going to bear a huge load offensively.
In a year? Maybe the Lakers add Jimmy Butler or others to take the load off. But James is going to once again be battling the inevitable drag of time while having to manage an inordinate workload. James is as close to invulnerable as any player we’ve ever seen. If he wasn’t so good at literally everything else, his durability might have been the first line about his greatness.
Still, Father Time is undefeated, and James is once again talking trash to him before trying to score on him one-on-one. Eventually, Father Time is going to meet James at the rim.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James
James is betting the Warriors are beatable
Not just in the Warriors’ conference, James is facing Golden State in its own division. He’ll see the Warriors four times a year, trying to hide strategies and approaches against them to save for the playoffs.
The common strategy in sports is to wait as long as possible to face a tough opponent, hoping someone else takes them out or injuries and exhaustion soften them up. No one knows this better than James, but now his best-case scenario is to face the team of the decade in the Western Conference Finals.
Golden State agreed to terms with Kevin Durant on Saturday night; the Warriors are not going anywhere. LeBron’s best path to the title was to stay in the East. His second-best path was to join Houston, which had the most to take the Warriors on. James is betting that the Warriors will be vulnerable enough at some point for whatever version of the Lakers he creates to topple them.
Even if his body holds up, and the Lakers remake the roster into a contender, and they survive the circus and the pressure, James still has to beat the Warriors.
James joined the most popular franchise in NBA history, and gets the lifestyle he wanted. As long as the boys up north are making a ruckus, though, the odds are still stacked against the greatest player of a generation.
Sit back, get your popcorn and enjoy the show.
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