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It wasn’t shocking that LeBron James decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Sure, his four-year, $154 million agreement has the potential to be a historic, landscape-shifting move, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
Plugged-in people have been talking about the possibility of James heading west — to his advancing Hollywood interests, to his two homes in L.A., to perpetual sunshine and the Pacific — for more than a year. There were other options on the table, some more realistic than others (ah, that sweet, ludicrous Warriors nonsense). The Lakers — a tarnished empire of late, but one of the league’s two glamour franchises and a canonical seat of power for superstars throughout NBA history — always seemed the most likely destination. It, like so much else about the NBA over the last several seasons of Warriors-Cavs hegemony, was predictable.
And then, with Klutch Sports’ MJ-evoking announcement still ringing in our ears and a universe of takes just starting to form, something weird happened. Not content to rest on their laurels after doing precisely what they were hired to do, Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka set about securing the King’s court, pivoting from a pact with the best basketball player in the world to cutting deals with … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? And Lance Stephenson? And JaVale McGee? And then, a day later, renouncing Julius Randle … to bring in Rajon Rondo?
Maybe you’d pegged KCP returning to the Lakers after the LeBron news hit. (Klutch fam, and all that.) But the Lakers using up most of the rest of their available salary cap space on LeBron’s most infamous antagonist, a serviceable short-minutes center with a checkered on-court past, and a former nemesis pass-first point guard who’s at his best with the ball in his hands? That was unexpected. That we wouldn’t have predicted.
And that points to the broader league-wide victory of LeBron-to-L.A.: it’s made, and is making, the NBA unpredictable again. Or, at least, it’s creating a ripple effect that seems likely to reverberate throughout the league, potentially introducing some sorely needed chaos into an ecosystem that’s been enveloped by a saddening stasis.
Before the last NBA season had even started, pundits and fans bemoaned the grim certainty of what was to follow: a fourth straight Finals meeting between Golden State and Cleveland, with the defending champion Warriors once again quickly dispatching the Cavs after having checkmated LeBron by adding Kevin Durant. Those of us who believe in the value of reading the story even if you think you know how it’ll end did our best to put a brave face on things, and there was plenty of cool stuff to enjoy along the way. But J.R. Smith’s unforgettable meltdown effectively stripped all potential drama from the final chapter. Now, though? Magic and LeBron shook the Etch-a-Sketch, and it’s going to be a while before we know what the new big picture is going to look like.
We know that Kawhi Leonard still wants to be a Laker. L.A.’s post-LeBron run of one-year deals points toward Magic and Pelinka retaining the financial flexibility to keep another maximum-salary slot open for next summer, when the two-time All-NBA forward can opt out of his contract and hit the unrestricted market. The Lakers might not be done this summer, either; after the Randle/Rondo moves, they’ve still got about $5.7 million worth of cap space to play with, and they can open up $9.8 million more by waiving veteran forward Luol Deng with the stretch provision (or $17.2 million more if they can find a taker for him in trade). After this whirlwind of weird-on-their-face moves, it feels like there’s a big shoe still waiting to drop. Maybe two.
I’m pretty bullish on the potential of a LeBron-Brandon Ingram-KCP-Lonzo Ball quartet in the starting lineup. They’re long as hell on defense, capable of switching assignments across multiple positions without giving too much ground. They’ve got two elite passers in James and Ball, plus Ingram, who shined when pressed into duty as an ostensible point guard last season. (Of course, Rondo — who was pretty damn good for New Orleans last season, especially in the playoffs — could always wind up taking Lonzo’s starting gig, whether via trade or winning an open competition.)
The center position remains an open question. Fresh off playing a surprisingly big role (albeit often in limited minutes) for Steve Kerr during two title runs in Golden State, McGee would offer a dynamic shot-blocking presence and a devastating screen-and-roll lob target … as well as the potential for travesty when pushed outside a tightly circumscribed role. Barring a big step forward for third-year reserve Ivica Zubac or one hell of a Summer League and preseason for first-round pick Moe Wagner, the Lakers would seem to be in the market for another answer at the five. Would that remaining $5.7 million in room be enough to bring Brook Lopez (13 points, four rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 blocks in 23.4 minutes per game for the Lakers last season) back for one more go at Staples Center? (Or perhaps the Lakers are saving the Deng bullet to clear out the cap space for something else.)
Whichever way the Lakers go in the middle, there’s potential for an improvement over last year’s solidly average defense — L.A. finished 14th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, according to Ben Falk’s garbage-time-free stats at Cleaning the Glass — along with the near-promise of a top-flight offense. (The last time a LeBron-led team finished lower than sixth in the NBA in points scored per possession was a decade ago.) There’s cause for concern on that end, though, and it’s in what looks to be a severe lack of shooting.
LeBron’s long been at his best when he’s surrounded by snipers. The Lakers, as presently constituted, might be more like a gang that can’t shoot straight. Caldwell-Pope shot 38.3 percent mark from 3-point range last season, but that might have been an outlier; he’d never made more than 35 percent of his triples before that. Ingram got hot from distance late in the season, shooting 21-for-48 after Jan. 1, but that’s a pretty small sample size to feel fully comfortable banking on.
Ball, famously, had one of the most abysmal shooting starts to a career ever before a modest in-season improvement that saw him shoot 39.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from long range over his his final 30 games. A major, major leap will be needed. Rondo, long a reputed non-shooter, has improved over the years from deep, but perhaps not in ways that matter functionally in the conducting of an NBA offense. If rising sophomore forward Kyle Kuzma stumbles as the offensive focal point of L.A.’s second unit, then you wonder whether, even with LeBron, the Lakers will have enough firepower to hang tough in a dangerous Western Conference.
Remember, too, that things haven’t always gotten off to the smoothest start for LeBron-led teams. There was the 8-9 opening to Year 1 in Miami, and all those rumblings about wanting Pat Riley to come down out of the front office to replace Erik Spoelstra on the bench. There was the 19-20 start in his first year back in Cleveland, the message-sending passivity that opened his partnership with Kyrie Irving, the “FIT-OUT” fiasco with Kevin Love, the unceremonious end of David Blatt’s run in Ohio, and the years of reported strain that eventually led Irving to decide he wanted out.
If the road gets rocky next season, with James surrounded by young players who haven’t achieved much in the league yet and who have a very specific internal dynamic, how long will the honeymoon last? And, more to the point, how far back can L.A. lag before they find themselves behind the 8-ball?
The sheer force of LeBron was enough to lift Cleveland above the fray last year. Will it be again, this time in a West in which a dozen other teams — all of last year’s top eight, plus the very good Denver Nuggets, the potentially frisky guard-heavy L.A. Clippers, the Luka-and-DeAndre-bolstered Dallas Mavericks, and maybe even the youth-and-Ariza-reloaded Phoenix Suns — might harbor legitimate hopes of postseason play? It feels blasphemous to suggest that a team led by LeBron — this version of LeBron, still the best player in the world entering Year 16, even with scores more miles than Jordan piled up in his entire career — could miss the playoffs, but … man, what if the Lakers miss the playoffs this year?
That’s just the drama in L.A. this season. If the Lakers don’t land a second star before the year, but keep their powder dry and their balance sheet clean enough to make another max offer next summer, they officially become the monster under the bed of every team with a linchpin on the verge of free agency who might just want to see some palm trees. (The working list: Leonard, Love, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Kemba Walker, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Khris Middleton, and so on.)
Fear and anxiety can make people do strange things. If a third of the league is worried that it’s going to lose one of its top guns to the Lakers in a few months’ time, what kind of shadow might that cast over the league? What kind of weird internecine squabbles, rotational shuffles and panic trades might we see?
And if you’re really looking for a Silicon Valley-appropriate level of disruption: Does a LeBron-led L.A. with max space available make Golden State brass start to sweat the fact that Durant only re-upped on a one-plus-one? I mean, LeBron did make it pretty clear that KD was his first pick back at the All-Star Game in L.A., right? (It’s all connected, man.)
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but: LeBron James no longer plays in the Eastern Conference! For the first time in nearly a decade, a team that doesn’t employ LeBron will win the East. Who’s it going to be?
The early money’s on the Boston Celtics, who took James to seven games in the conference finals without a healthy Irving and Gordon Hayward, and who expect to get them both back at full strength to pair with Horford and rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But after losing out on James, the Philadelphia 76ers — the similarly rising young team that Boston beat in Round 2 to advance to its meeting with Cleveland — reportedly remain in the hunt on a blockbuster trade for Leonard to team with ascendant young maulers Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If Philly gains traction there, do the Celtics (who have had reported interest in Kawhi themselves) get serious in the bidding, putting the likes of Brown and some of their high-value future draft picks on the table for San Antonio to consider? If Philly and Boston get into a real arms race over Leonard, the already-shuffled-up top of the East could look even more drastically different before too long.
And what about Toronto? The Raptors fired the most successful head coach in franchise history because something had to change after three straight devastating playoff exits at LeBron’s hands, with team president Masai Ujiri making it clear that no member of last year’s 59-win team is untouchable if moving him means giving the Raps a better chance at reaching the top of the mountain. With the bully now off the block, does Ujiri adopt a more conservative pose, believing what he’s got is good enough to knock off even a full-strength Boston or the still-growing Sixers, just so long as they don’t employ Toronto’s Boogeyman? Or does he seize what could be a golden — and, with Boston and Philly on the rise, likely fleeting — opportunity to push for a roster revamp that could land the sort of top-15-to-20 player that the Raptors haven’t been able to conjure in the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era?
How about Milwaukee? The Bucks seemed like a team poised to make a leap next year, after hiring the systematically sharp Mike Budenholzer to organize all their athletes on both ends of the floor and unleash the full potential of All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who, by the way, is now the best player in the conference?
Does the chance to make a Greek-Freak-in-transition-style leap up the Eastern standings impel Bucks leadership to get bold, whether by spending to bring back gifted but risky restricted free agent Jabari Parker or pursuing outside-the-box trade options that might vault the team’s ceiling from “50-win second-round possibility” to “legitimate contender?” (One wonders whether the Bucks would’ve been as eager to spend $21 million on Ersan Ilyasova if they’d known for sure LeBron was heading west.)
Questions abound. Could LeBron at some point in the next two seasons finally start to show his age and workload on the court, making other stars reluctant to hitch their wagons to the rest of his prime? How much would that limit the Lakers’ ceiling? Could it throw everything else about this potential last act into upheaval?
If, as we expect, he continues to perform at a level literally unprecedented by a player with this odometer, is it only a matter of time before this weirdo collection of Lakers becomes another superpower rising in the West? Will fear of that possibility, and of losing out on the kind of talent that could put you in the same conversation, lead to even more hectic maneuvering in the East? And with the Warriors eventually running out Durant, Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins at the same damn time, does any of this really matter?
Maybe the answer is no. Maybe, with Durant staying put and Cousins coming aboard, and Trevor Ariza leaving Houston, next year’s just another round of, “Healthy Warriors in five, no matter what.” If nothing else, though, LeBron-to-L.A. ensures that we’ll have a brand new pack of questions to ask along the way, a slew of new spectacles to gawk at and fawn over in the process … and the possibility of more great, sweeping, unpredictable shifts to consider while we wait through the heat for the real games to start. Sounds a hell of a lot cooler than grumbling about knowing what comes next, doesn’t it?
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