It’s no surprise that the Los Angeles Lakers snagged LeBron James. They were the overwhelming favorite to acquire him, and both parties have been eyeing each other for years. James owns two homes in L.A., and his post-basketball aspiration is to be one of the world’s greatest entertainment moguls. As the NBA’s most glamorous franchise, the Lakers live superstar to superstar. This is a match made in hoop and hoopla heaven.
Yet it’s still stunning that James agreed to become a Laker so quickly, on the first day of free agency, and with so much uncertainty on Los Angeles’s roster. James isn’t coming with Paul George, who is staying in Oklahoma City. He isn’t coming after the Lakers finagled Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio. The Lakers agreed to re-sign underachieving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and reached a deal with James’s former antagonist, Lance Stephenson, but LeBron is basically alone, babysitting Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the kids. Of course, signing the best active basketball player on Earth gives the Lakers the freedom to go big and sacrifice any or all of their youngsters for Leonard or another all-star who could help James make the franchise a championship contender again. But there are no guarantees, and surprisingly, it seems that James is okay with that.
For all the debate about whether the effervescent Magic Johnson possessed the charm to pull off this coup, James may have wanted the Lakers just as much as the Lakers wanted him. And just like that, the Lakers have risen from a five-year competitive coma.
In their first 65 seasons, this franchise — which shares the title of most essential with the Boston Celtics — missed the playoffs just five times. But for the past five seasons, the Lakers have been sitting at home during the postseason. They haven’t finished with a record better than last season’s 35-47 mark. Their winning percentage over the past half decade: .307. That equates to a record of 126-284. Since Kobe Bryant retired two years ago, Los Angeles has existed without an all-star and true face of the franchise. It has been so bad that LaVar Ball, the father of the Lakers’ great point guard hope, is a more compelling (and irritating) figure than his son and the rest of the players on the roster.
It all changes now that King James is here. The Lakers are relevant again, and even if they can’t land an experienced running mate for him, James is so great that he can take the current raw cast and make it a playoff team.
But are the Lakers back? Well, let’s not go that far just yet.
Johnson, the legend turned president of basketball operations, was howling about the Lakers being back from the minute he took over the franchise in February 2017. When the team drafted Lonzo Ball last summer, he introduced him breathlessly as the “new face of the Lakers.” He’s the king of charisma and hyperbole. But Johnson’s boldest move to date — the kind of splashy acquisition that owner Jeanie Buss hired him to make — probably will result in understated celebration.
Why? Because the Lakers have too much work to do. And James is playing his latest departure from Cleveland in a much more subdued manner. Klutch Sports Group, which manages him, announced the decision Sunday with a one-sentence, stick-to-the-facts press release. There are no plans for James to attend a news conference or explain himself in a video, not even on his “Uninterrupted” platform, according to ESPN. James is arguably the most famous active American athlete, and he is joining one of the world’s most popular sports brands, and there will be no fireworks show to rival Independence Day.
This is likely James’s way of showing Cleveland how much he has learned since 2010, when he left for Miami and announced it with the infamous and tacky “The Decision” special on ESPN. He gave the Cavaliers everything he had during his second stint in Cleveland, carrying them to four Finals appearances and winning a curse-breaking championship in 2016. This goodbye will be full of disappointment, but it doesn’t figure to enrage Northeast Ohio this time. James returned and delivered on a championship promise. He also started several projects, including a school that will open July 30, to uplift the region and ensure he will have a lasting impact.
Now he’s off to chase another dream. And the Lakers have lured another superstar to town. They always get their man. In the past, they have been big men: Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dwight Howard. (Uh, he was a big deal back then!) The Lakers acquired all of them in free agency or via trades. For the past five years, it didn’t seem that Los Angeles was irresistible anymore as star after star declined opportunities to join the Lakers. James eliminates the perception that L.A. has lost its desirability.
Still, the Lakers aren’t back. For them, “back” means winning championships. James could be the start of building a title-worthy roster, but there’s much work to do to compete with Golden State.
After spending 15 seasons in the Eastern Conference and making nine Finals appearances (including eight in a row) and winning three titles, James is moving to the West. As the East rejoices and the Boston/Philadelphia rivalry takes center stage again, James will have a difficult time getting to the Finals now. Heck, he might have a difficult time getting to the conference finals because that means going through Golden State or Houston.
At 33 years old, James signed a four-year, $153.3 million deal, his longest contractual commitment since 2010. He will be a Laker until Father Time finds him. This is his last stand, with a franchise that demands multiple championships of its superstars, on a stage on which Bryant captured the imagination and loyalty of the fan base just a short time ago.
So this is much more than just a glitzy way for James to fade into the sunset. His legacy as a top-five player in NBA history and one of basketball’s most incomparable talents is secure. But there will be pressure, more than he would have felt at any other destination. To have the best Hollywood ending, he must beat the Warriors and kiss another Larry O’Brien Trophy, if not two. For the love of Kobe, the King must deliver again and add to the Lakers’ 16-title collection.
James, always fidgety, always impatient, was destined to make another move. Perhaps it’s only right that he chose a franchise, despite its recent struggles, that always wants more.