This upcoming summer is it for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Following a season that can be summed up on almost every front as an abject disaster, the Lakers are facing an offseason that will likely make or break the LeBron James era in L.A. and determine the fate of franchise icon Magic Johnson as a team executive.
Land at least one of the summer’s free-agent whales or suffer the consequences.
This is no secret. Coming off a lottery-bound season notable for high-profile failure (Anthony Davis), internal turmoil (Anthony Davis fallout) and external noise (Big Baller Brand), there is no choice for the Lakers power players other than to get things right this summer.
LeBron: ‘I want to compete now’
But just in case that wasn’t 100 percent transparent, James hammered the point home in an interview with Bleacher Report.
"It's a critical summer for myself," James told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. "Obviously, the franchise is going to live forever. But for me personally, it's very critical, because I want to compete, and I want to compete now."
Yes, LeBron’s Lakers stint will impact his legacy
James knows the score, of course. As much as he’s accomplished and rightfully secured his place in basketball lore, a career capped with failure with the Lakers would be a stain on his legacy.
Lakers history is littered with individual greatness that has translated to championships.
From Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Magic Johnson and James Worthy, to Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, Hall of Famers have starred for the Lakers. And they’ve won titles.
If the Lakers can’t even sniff contention with James still in his prime, where will he end up standing in Lakers lore?
Not anywhere near those names is where.
Lot of work to do in L.A.
And the Lakers as currently constructed can’t even compete for a playoff spot, much less think about the NBA Finals.
The window on this experiment is narrow. James will turn 35 early next season. There’s no time to waste.
The decline of James’ game has been an overplayed narrative during this disastrous season. His averages of 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists are still astounding and actually a tick higher than his career numbers.
This isn’t Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform.
But concerns about James’ durability at his age are valid. His 17 consecutive inactives with a groin strain this season are not the norm for his career. James’ durability has been one of the best of his many remarkable traits.
So yeah. James, like everyone else paying attention, knows the time is now.
LeBron calls out Magic, Pelinka
"So it's very critical to me and my future," James told Bleacher Report of landing another star. "And I'm positive and very optimistic that Magic and Rob and the franchise will be great."
Notice that’s the third time James chose to use the word “critical” while speaking with Beck. Also notice how he called out Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka by name there.
The Lakers front office whiffed mightily in failing to secure Anthony Davis at the trade deadline, a misstep that helped catalyze the team’s downfall from playoff contenders to lottery tankers.
Upcoming free-agent bonanza
Opportunity will be ripe this summer to make up for that miscalculation. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler are among the several difference-makers available to hit the open market.
And, conceivably, the Lakers can hold out hope of another shot at a Davis deal. Though given the animosity lingering from both sides of the in-season talks, it’s probably best for Lakers fans to not hold their breath on that front.
The minimum requirement will be for Johnson and Pelinka to land one of those big names. Two is the ideal as the Lakers face immense pressure to make the most of the LeBron era in L.A.
Doing so is not a sure thing. Several of those names are attached to rumors landing elsewhere, including the two biggest fish, Durant and Leonard.
James is culpable too. A major influence on the construction of his successful runs with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, James is putting his reputation as a talent lure on the line.
Last summer, Johnson promised to land multiple superstars over the course of two offseasons or step down. Shortly after that statement, the Lakers signed James.
Soon it will be time for Johnson to uphold the remainder of that pledge. With the summer approaching, James is laying down a not-so-subtle reminders of what needs to be done.
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