Eight years ago, LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach in a television special. Four years ago, he announced he was returning to Northern Ohio in a letter he penned in Sports Illustrated.
Sunday night, James announced he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers in a press release issued via a tweet.
“LeBron James, four-time NBA MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP, 14-time NBA all-star and two-time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four-year, [$153.3 million] contract with the Los Angeles Lakers,” said James’s agency, Klutch Sports Group, in the release, sent out to the world at 8:05 p.m.
The tweet made official what had been expected for days: James will ship West to Los Angeles after spending the past four seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What was not expected was that James would sign anywhere for four seasons, even with the fourth year being a player option. That is the longest contract he has signed anywhere since joining the Miami Heat in 2010.
It was a big, and necessary, move for the Lakers. The league’s glamour franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since 2012 and hasn’t been to the postseason since 2013 — after missing the postseason just five times in its first 65 years of existence.
That streak likely won’t continue. Becoming a championship contender — like the ones James played for in Miami and Cleveland while making the past eight NBA Finals in a row — won’t come easily.
When James went to the Heat, he played alongside all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When he returned to Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was already there and Kevin Love was on his way via a trade.
The Lakers have solid young talent in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, but not the usual coterie of stars who have joined James in the past. They did take steps to add more talent around James not long after the big announcement by signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — another Klutch Sports client — to a one-year, $12 million deal. Shortly thereafter, they added Lance Stephenson, a longtime James nemesis during his time with the Indiana Pacers while James was in both Miami and Cleveland. And shortly after that, former Warriors center JaVale McGee came aboard.
They could still open up more cap sspace by waiving and stretching Luol Deng and/or renouncing the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle. There is the possibility the roster could be shaped further by trades. But even in that scenario, the Lakers remain a long way from competing with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.
James’s decision clearly was made for reasons beyond immediate basketball success. He already has a home and myriad business interests in Los Angeles. And with his oldest son approaching high school, a long-term deal will give his family stability, as well. Signing a four-year deal also gives the Lakers’ front office, led by President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka, time to build a championship contender around him over the long-term.
Kawhi Leonard, who has expressed a preference to play with the Lakers, could be a step toward that. But James’s contract won’t put any pressure on Johnson and Pelinka to overpay to get the San Antonio Spurs star.
So, too, does the fact that a cavalcade of stars — including Leonard, Irving, Love, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford and Kemba Walker — will be free agents next summer, when James will be able to serve as the team’s lead recruiter in free agency and will be able to sell the fact that he isn’t going anywhere to prospective teammates.
For James’s former team, the Cavaliers, Sunday marks the beginning of the second post-James era in franchise history. The last time this happened, eight years ago, owner Dan Gilbert famously fired off a letter to his fan base decrying his superstar’s decision to go to the Heat and declaring the Cavaliers would win a championship before James would.
That proved to be incorrect, and four years later, Gilbert had to mend fences with James to get him back to Cleveland for a second time. On Sunday night, James sent an Instagram story out to his 38.9 million followers thanking the fans from Northeast Ohio. The Akron native posted a picture of him from the team’s championship celebration two years ago with the caption, “Thank you Northeast Ohio for an incredible 4 seasons. This will always be home.”
Now, after four NBA Finals appearances — including the 2016 NBA title — James’s home is starting over again. And the first order of business will be deciding whether Kevin Love will remain with the Cavaliers.
For the rest of this year’s free agents, James, Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson signing with the Lakers eliminates one of the few teams with significant cap space on the market. Only the Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks have more than $20 million in cap space less than a full day into free agency. The Sixers are expected to use it to retain their own free agents to preserve cap space, while the Bulls and Hawks are in the business of trying to take on dead money.
Center DeMarcus Cousins could still be an option for the Lakers on a short-term deal this summer if they choose to open up more cap space. But if they choose not to do that, there will be few options for employment for Cousins or other players on the market for more than the mid-level exception. That will be a tough pill to swallow for several prominent players still searching for new homes.
None of that matters to the Lakers, though. Instead, they will be content to return to relevancy for the first time in a half-decade. The greatest player of his generation, and one of the best of all-time, deciding to join your franchise will do that.
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