For the third and likely final time in his career, LeBron James is part of a superstar conglomerate. Well, it’s more of a merger for now — the King and Anthony Davis. It’s the most promising and important on-court relationship James has ever had.
In free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers hope to add a third great player to the mix, and that always has been the championship formula for James. What’s the saying? To whom much is given in multiples of three, much is required? Something like that.
Trios are a curious thing. In basketball or in friendships, the so-called Big Three is often a dynamic duo with an additional wheel who, no matter how vital, blends into the group. Chris Bosh was that guy for James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Kevin Love was that guy for James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. If the Lakers — dysfunctional, yet still the Lakers — are smart, they will seek the best talent who requires the least maintenance to complement James and Davis. Or they will divide their remaining salary cap space into two or three true role players because trading for Davis left their roster so thin. Whatever they decide, it still starts with James and Davis.
The superstar partnership is a huge portion of James’s legacy. When he joined forces with Wade and Bosh, he changed the thinking of his franchise-carrying peers. He made it okay for greatness to stop standing stubbornly and selflessly alone, and for that, many will never forgive him. He rewrote the rules of engagement and evaluation for the NBA’s finest players and spawned the superteam era. He inadvertently contributed to the formation of Golden State’s four-star championship run. The thing about inventions is that others often copy and perfect them. But James has an opportunity to build another championship team and put his finishing touches on how this era is defined.
James will turn 35 on Dec. 30. Bothered by a groin injury, he played in a career-low 55 games last season in his Lakers debut. The 2019-20 campaign will be his 17th in the NBA. James never has been on a team with an equal. He never will be, particularly if you factor in historical impact. But here comes the 26-year-old Davis, in the prime of his career, with so much he still wants to accomplish. He is the NBA’s best two-way big man, a regular candidate for defensive player of the year and a versatile scorer who averaged 27.5 points over the past three seasons.
With apologies to those toasting the career of the retiring Wade or those infatuated with Irving’s dribbling and scoring, Davis is about to become the best player to team up with James. James has never played with a peer who has a 7-foot-6 wingspan to go with guard-like skills and agility. And now that James, in theory, has exited his prime playing years, he would be wise to do something he never has done: Teach Davis to be the alpha star and then defer.
James came to Los Angeles as the first superstar post-Kobe Bryant. He also arrived amid the worst stretch in the franchise’s glorious history, and last season the Lakers failed to reach the playoffs even with him. James won’t own the Lakers in the manner he owned the Cavaliers. He won’t lift them to new heights like he did the Heat in Miami. But he can resurrect a proud franchise and rebuild the bridge to sustained success.
No one has taken the Lakers from this low of a place and led them to a championship. That’s where James can make his mark in L.A. Beyond that, if he transfers the cheat codes to Davis, he will create a pathway to Lakers greatness long after he retires. Add it to the list of things James has never done: leave a team in successful shape after he departs.
For all of Davis’s talent, he made just two playoff appearances in New Orleans. It’s not his fault that he isn’t considered an NBA winner — he led Kentucky to a collegiate national title as a freshman — but the label is missing on his résumé. A quiet and private superstar, Davis can learn even more from James about how to handle the spotlight and carry a franchise with expectations. Davis, who has been injury-prone, also could learn about NBA durability.
And as a player with much more NBA life in his body, Davis has the ability to help James pick and choose his spots more often. For James, deferring doesn’t have to mean hiding behind Davis. James can enhance Davis’s greatness with his passing ability. He can play off Davis’s defensive presence. He can rest more during games and conserve his energy. If General Manager Rob Pelinka builds around them properly, perhaps James can sit out more games because the 6-10 Davis is accustomed to carrying teams. Pull back, support, win together — then walk away and hand over the throne.
Among former teammates, James’s closest equal would have been Wade, but after the Heat spent the 2010-11 season trying to figure it out and then lost to Dallas in the Finals, Wade encouraged James to take the lead. In the next two seasons, James won his third and fourth regular season MVP awards and led Miami to back-to-back championships while being named Finals MVP. During the rest of his time with James, Wade missed significant court time because of injuries, but he also turned into a highly efficient player who scored in the low 20s. Because of Wade’s deference and Bosh’s willingness to alter his game, the Heat won without conflict.
In Cleveland, Irving and Love hadn’t won enough to challenge James’s influence. There were some difficult times, first with Love. And then Irving, tired of being the little brother, forced a trade to Boston after three years.
Thus began the notion that James isn’t as easy to play with as advertised. For the past few seasons, James has fought the stigma that being his No. 2 is actually a bad job, not the perfect NBA setup. A fruitful relationship with Davis can change that. But at this point in his career, this star merger should have a different dynamic.
It won’t be a comfortable transition for James, who enjoys being the center of his team as well as the NBA universe. As he ages and inevitable questions arise, he will want to respond and prove he’s still got it. But those are petty concerns. He has plenty of greatness left, so much that he can boost Davis and then complement him without ruining his place in the game.
No more big brother-little brother. If all goes well, LeBron and AD can have a king-successor setup, their version of how Kareem and Magic operated in the 1980s. That would be something new and would add to James’s legacy as much as a new scoring record. For a player who loves to pass, that would be something James can relish as his career reaches its twilight.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.