We know LeBron James will be a Laker, his decision announced Sunday via a one-sentence statement posted to his agency’s Twitter account.
Now the question is: Why?
Right, it’s Los Angeles. Swimming pools. Movie stars. James has homes in the area and spends his offseasons there anyway. He has one foot planted in the entertainment industry, from his production company, Springhill Entertainment (there’s reportedly a “House Party” reboot in the works), to his social media platform, Uninterrupted, to acting.
Don’t lie: You saw “Trainwreck.” And admit it — he was pretty good.
Living in L.A. makes it easier to expand that empire. He will have regular access to some of the biggest power brokers in Hollywood — Seriously, you think anyone is turning down a meeting with James? — and with it the ability to grow his net worth considerably. Magic Johnson, his new boss, may be new to running an NBA team, but he’s an old hand at spinning a successful NBA career into an uber-successful post-playing one. James and Johnson reportedly met on Saturday night at James’ Brentwood mansion and discussed exactly that. James may be leaving $54 million on the table by not re-upping with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but L.A. will afford him the opportunity to make that up — and then some.
So it makes sense — from a business standpoint.
From a basketball one? Well …
Understand: Everything changes if L.A. lands Kawhi Leonard. Two seasons ago, Leonard was a top-five NBA player, the second runner-up for MVP. Yes, there are legitimate concerns among NBA executives about the long-term health of Leonard’s quad, but if the Lakers can acquire him, and if he returns to form, they would immediately become, at worst, a middle-of-the-pack playoff team and a tough out in the West.
But Leonard isn’t a Laker, and there are no indications he will be anytime soon. So what is James left with? Paul George passed on the chance to play with him, Chris Paul, too, leaving James with a trio of young players and an island of misfit toys. Did you see who L.A. came to terms with on Sunday? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is back. JaVale McGee is moving south. Lance Stephenson was handed a one-year deal.
This is where we take a moment to take in the fact that James and Stephenson will actually be teammates. James should move Stephenson into his guest house, film it and make a gazillion dollars.
What can you do with that? James is the NBA’s best player, but a dominant offensive season in the Eastern Conference produced 50 wins and the No. 4 seed. Yes, Cleveland advanced to a fourth straight NBA Finals, but knocking off Indiana, Toronto and banged-up Boston is different than staring down Utah, Houston and Golden State.
This feels like a play for the 2019-20 season, not this one. The summer of 2019 figures to be loaded with frontline players, from Leonard to Kevin Durant to Klay Thompson to Jimmy Butler. As the face of the Lakers — and one under contract for at least the next three seasons — James can be L.A.’s chief recruiter, while Johnson and Rob Pelinka maintain maximum salary cap flexibility to clear space for the talent James lures in.
Is James, 33, really willing to punt on the upcoming season in the hopes of success in the next one? Seems like it. L.A. is a fantastic business decision and clearly one with which his family was comfortable. But basketball? Finding his way to Houston, a 65-win team that had the Warriors on the ropes last season, would have been a basketball decision. The Sixers, a team with a pair of elite young franchise players already on board, would have been a basketball decision.
Boston, Denver, Golden State … those would have been basketball decisions.
The Lakers are about something else. Sure, two years from now L.A. could be a contender. The Rockets lost a key role player in Trevor Ariza, and Durant’s unwillingness to commit to Golden State beyond next season — coupled with the massive costs of keeping a team with four stars together — could close the Warriors’ window sooner than expected.
But what will James be in two years? What will he be in three? James Harden is the MVP, but LeBron is the league’s most dominant force. Just how long can James maintain that status? He looks superhuman — and the fact that he led the NBA in minutes in each of the last two seasons, playing in all 82 games in this most recent one, is bonkers — but eventually he will fade. The pursuit of Michael Jordan, of Kobe Bryant, once consumed him. Does it still consume him now?
The LeBron Show is headed to Los Angeles, and between James, Johnson and the oxygen-sucking presence of LaVar Ball, the Lakers are suddenly the NBA’s most compelling team. Less certain is if they will be one of its most successful ones.
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