California dreamin': Why LeBron and his cast of Lakers misfits will be can't-miss entertainment

Chris Mannix

BOSTON — To my editor: This is to inform you that as of October, I will be living in Los Angeles.

It’s not because I want to. I have to. Are you seeing what’s going on with the Los Angeles Lakers? First, they land LeBron James, the NBA’s best player and 6-feet-8, 250 pounds of clickable content. Is there anyone who drives more web traffic than James? He plays well, people want to read about him. He has a clunker, people want to know why. He is the most scrutinized athlete in sports history — and he’s headed to one of the league’s biggest markets.

That alone should be enough. But have you seen the team they are putting around him? Conventional wisdom says you surround James with shooters. It’s what the Miami Heat did, when they pushed Chris Bosh to the five, shoved Shane Battier on the perimeter and forced teams to stop LeBron in space. The Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and others, tried it, too.

The Lakers? They got Lance Stephenson, a career 30.3 percent 3-point shooter. They added Rajon Rondo, a career 30.9 percent 3-point shooter. And don’t get me started on JaVale McGee. Office-building elevators will offer more spacing. Trae Young probably saw fewer triple teams in college than James will face next season.

But forget all that. Think of the personalities. Think of the potential conflict. Start with James and Stephenson. The best way to describe league-wide reaction to the one-year, $4.5 million deal Stephenson received from the Lakers: flabbergasted. “There are opponents that LeBron respects,” said an NBA coach familiar with James. “I think he has always seen Lance as kind of a buffoon.”

The LeBron James-Kobe Bryant dynamic could be something to watch in L.A. (AP)
The LeBron James-Kobe Bryant dynamic could be something to watch in L.A. (AP)

Yet here they are, together, sharing the same locker room, battling it out in practice. Will James embrace Stephenson, forging the most improbable of friendships? Or will he treat him as a mercenary, roster filler until he can recruit more of his own people next season?

Think anyone wants to read about that?

And what about Rondo? After “Playoff Rondo” helped the New Orleans Pelicans to a first-round series sweep over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans responded by lowballing him and deciding a combination of Elfrid Payton (total playoff wins: zero) and Julius Randle (ditto) were better fits. Enter the Lakers, who happily handed Rondo a one-year, $9 million contract and a promise that he will have every opportunity to compete for a starting spot, a source close to Rondo told Yahoo Sports.

How do you think that went over in the Ball household?

Lonzo Ball tweeted a welcome to LeBron shortly after the news of his commitment broke on Sunday, but we have no idea if James wants to play with him. In 2014, courtesy of James’ essay in Sports Illustrated, we were clued in to his thinking of the Cavaliers’ young talent. He expressed excitement about teaming up with Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. They stayed. He made no mention of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. They never played a game with him. The one-sentence press release declaring James’ intention to sign with the Lakers offered no insight into his thinking about the roster.

Want something we do know? James likes smart players, and basketball IQ’s don’t come much higher than Rondo’s. “The smartest player I have ever played with,” former NBA player Brian Scalabrine has said of Rondo, and tales of Rondo dissecting opponents’ plays before they happen are legendary — almost as legendary as the stories of James doing the same thing. The two seem like an awkward fit — both are ball-dominant players — but who do you think LeBron is going to want on the floor in critical situations? The ex-NBA champion or the second-year pro?

Lonzo may take situations like that in stride. At least publicly. LaVar? Maybe not so much. The Lakers tried to muzzle an overly critical Lavar a handful of times last season. And that was with his son starting 50 of the 52 games he played, averaging 34 minutes a game. What happens if Rondo, who is fighting for his own career, slices into some of those minutes?

I really should be there to find out.

And what about coach Luke Walton? Last season Walton coached a plucky young roster with no expectations. This season he gets LeBron, and the island of misfit toys. Best case, James and Walton — fellow members of the draft class of 2003 — connect, Ball and Rondo share a backcourt, and the Lakers enjoy a (relatively) quiet season. Worst case, Walton is forced regularly to put fires out in the locker room and spends the 2018-19 season answering far too many questions about whether he will be the coach of the team in 2019-20.

Which do you think is more likely?

What about LeBron and Kobe Bryant, and the first breezy, off-the-cuff comment from Bryant that James will never be a true Laker? What about LeBron and Magic Johnson, and the evolution of a relationship between two players that have been endlessly compared? What about the season-long stories of Team X coming into L.A. and soon-to-be free agent Player Y being asked about the possibility of joining LeBron next summer?

Do we really want to miss out on any of that?

So that’s it, I’m gone. Goodbye, Boston, Pizzeria Regina and the best dive bars in America. Hello, Los Angeles, In-N-Out Burger and Hollywood nightclubs. When I’m not in El Segundo, I’ll have a regular table at Spago. When I’m not at the Staples Center, I’ll be firing down Fanta shots at the Shellback Tavern. I’ll reconnect with Chrissy Teigen — nobody went to more SI Swimsuit parties than me — and pretend to like soccer, all while posting the obligatory two pictures a day of a beachfront sunset.

It will be worth it. The NBA’s best team is in Northern California. The best story is in L.A.

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