Let’s get this out of the way: The Los Angeles Lakers are now a better free-agent destination for LeBron James than the Cleveland Cavaliers. That wasn’t the case nine months ago, but it’s clear now.
James toured through L.A. this past weekend with the Cavs, suffering losses to both the Clippers and Lakers — the latter of which wasn’t so much a stake in the heart of this debate as it was a helpful reminder — and said all the right things, as he’s done since training camp, when questions of his free agency began in earnest. He’s focused on this season, and he’ll deal with it when the time comes.
Only, this season has been imploding since early December, and time could come earlier than anyone anticipated after the Cavaliers came off a third straight NBA Finals trip last June. The Toronto Raptors are better, and the Boston Celtics are coming. Whether either team can prevent James from carrying his least talented supporting cast since the pre-Decision days to another Finals is a matter of debate.
What shouldn’t be up for debate: The Cavaliers are not a longterm solution for James, so long as his previous stated goal of chasing championships every year is still his top priority. Even if his Cavs — now the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed — get through the first round, dispose of an injury-plagued Celtics team in the second and go on the road to upset a superior Raptors team in the conference finals, they stand no chance against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in the Finals.
And it’s not about to get any easier next season, when the current roster has Cleveland over the salary cap even before deciding on what to do with restricted free agent Rodney Hood. Same goes for the following season. Meanwhile, young squads in Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee will pose greater problems. Cavs general manager Koby Altman has the Brooklyn Nets pick (now slotted sixth) to dangle at the draft for some help, and that’s really their best and only hope of painting a brighter picture.
The West won’t exactly be a cakewalk, either. Golden State is locked in at least through next season. Houston is set, too, so long as they retain Chris Paul. And then there’s the usual gauntlet on that side of the bracket, including a young Minnesota Timberwolves group that should only get better.
But we’re here to talk about L.A., because there’s countless signs steering James in that direction, and because the Lakers’ president of basketball operations walked across the court to greet James’ agent and business manager at halftime of his team’s first victory against a LeBron-led team in six years.
Magic talks to LeBron’s crew, Rich and Maverick, during a timeout of this Laker blowout pic.twitter.com/YGtKT7T4jg
— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) March 12, 2018
Once embroiled in the sort of drama that’s befitting of a team in the backdrop of Hollywood, the Lakers have righted the ship after months of questions about No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball and his bombastic father, who publicly suggested coach Luke Walton had lost the locker room in L.A.
Sine Jan. 7, the Lakers own a 19-9 record — the league’s seventh-best mark in that span — and they’re outscoring opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions. In the same two-month stretch, the Cavs are 12-15 and have been outscore by 3.3 points per 100 possessions. To be fair, this is a fairly small sample size, and James will by no means be making his free-agent decision based on a third of one season.
But we’ve gained far more information about the Lakers in that timeframe than just wins and losses. Ball is good, and he’s going to be good. He’s averaging 11.6 points, seven rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.5 steals during that 19-9 run, playing sound defense and most importantly shooting 37.2 percent on more than seven 3-point attempts per game. Fellow former No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram is arriving, too, averaging 16.5 points (on 58.2 percent true shooting), five rebounds and 4.9 assists in that same span.
Eighteen players are averaging at least 11 points, five rebounds and 4.9 assists since Jan. 7. Ten are current or former All-Stars, and the Lakers have two of the other eight. And they’re both 20 years old.
Late first-round pick Kyle Kuzma has fallen back to Earth a bit for the Lakers, but he too has shown enough to prove his value in the coming years. Same goes for Josh Hart. And former lottery pick Julius Randle has been a beast, never more so than when he dropped 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists on the Cavaliers in Sunday’s 127-113 victory. This is a young core worth investing your stock in.
That isn’t to say they, with James, are contenders out West in 2018-19 or the next season, but their biggest leg up on Cleveland is flexibility. Depending on whether they retain Randle, the Lakers can create two max contracts in free agency — James and, say, Paul George. They could even keep Randle and sign-and-trade for George the same way Paul forced his route to Houston. There are options.
James and Max Player X combined with Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and whoever else signs with the Lakers — who will have made themselves a haven for veterans who want to win with LeBron and experience L.A. — may not beat the Warriors, but they’re better than these current Cavs, with a better coach to boot.
They also have those aforementioned young studs and a first-round pick every year moving forward (their own this year will go to Philadelphia, but they have Cleveland’s 2018 first-rounder) to dangle if and when other All-Stars become available. You can bet Ball or Ingram would fetch a decent return — far better than the wealth of overpaid players the Cavs have struggled to flip in recent years.
Suddenly, the Lakers have multiple roads to becoming competitive in the final years of LeBron’s prime and beyond, when the NBA title will seem less like a foregone conclusion. The same can’t be said of the Cavs, save for a draft-day miracle, and that’s becoming clearer with each Cleveland loss. It’s hard to imagine the thought didn’t cross James’ mind as he sat the final minutes of Sunday’s blowout loss.
The Rockets and Sixers can also make formidable free-agent pushes, but what recently seemed like a roadblock on LeBron’s potential road to L.A., where he owns multiple homes and has vested business interests, is now gone. The Lakers are no longer a wasteland. They’ve got better days on the horizon, and the Cavaliers, after turning Irving into a series of supporting role players, are stuck in neutral.
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