It was a Tweet of a press release, but it felt a lot like the legendary Michael Jordan “I’m back” fax.
LeBron James changed the landscape of the NBA in just one sentence.
What that sentence brings for the NBA is the kind of drama the league thrives on — the game’s biggest star and best player has planted his flag in Los Angeles. Fans will love it or hate it, but they will not be shy about expressing how they feel. Debate will rage.
LeBron has chosen to play for the NBA’s biggest brand in its most glamorous market — that comes with pressure, and hard questions. Can the combined drawing power of playing with LeBron and playing for the Lakers in Los Angeles draw in another star or two and rebuild the Lakers into a contender? And if so, how fast? What happens if they fall short?
LeBron has bet part of his legacy that he can hang a banner — or banners — in Staples Center.
He has bet he can lead a proud franchise back to the mountaintop, despite the fact that the league’s Mt. Everest resides less than 400 miles to the north. With the Lakers, you are not judged by trips to the conference finals or even making the Finals eight years in a row — it’s titles or bust. The Lakers don’t hang division/conference championship banners. It only hoists the kind LeBron wants.
It was the Golden State Warriors that has kept LeBron from more titles in recent years, and he knew he needed a new home and a new approach to beat them.
He has signed a four-year contract (he can opt out after three) — he never did that for the Cavaliers. In Cleveland, it was a series of one-year contracts, and even when he brought the first title to that city in more than five decades in 2016 he only signed a two-year deal. LeBron never fully trusted Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers organization.
He does trust Magic Johnson. He does trust owner Jeanie Buss. He trusts that, in the mold of the late Jerry Buss, they will do what it takes and spend whatever is needed to win. LeBron has bet big on the Lakers. And they on him.
LeBron’s decision has a lot of ramifications around the NBA.
The West — which already has Golden State and Houston, the two best teams in the NBA last season, plus teams on the rise such as Utah and Minnesota — is about to become a nightly bloodbath. Think of it this way: Even the worst team in the West last season, the Phoenix Suns, has gotten considerably better this off-season already. LeBron has walked into a nightly challenge — something he’s used to, his teams always have a target on their back. But the level of competition is about to jump.
In the East, Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ brass are going to open the good single malt scotch bottle tonight and enjoy a toast. The man who has dominated the East and represented the conference in the Finals for eight consecutive years is out of the picture. Sure, Philadelphia and others are not just going to roll over, but the road to the finals just got a lot less congested.
Another impact of LeBron’s decision: As if Los Angeles was not enough of a destination for players, it just became moreso.
Players are going to want to flock to the Lakers. Even more than normal. Los Angeles and its brand (not to mention good weather, nightlife, connections to Hollywood) have always been a draw for free agents. That just got multiplied by 23. While the Lakers are rounding out the roster (with one-year contracts, to keep flexibility for next summer) and bringing in some veterans to help the young core grow up and win faster, other players are clamoring to get to Los Angeles. Perform well in that market on that stage, and when free agency comes around the next time players values will be higher. Players around the league locked down with contracts are asking their agents to arrange trades to Los Angeles now.
That includes Kawhi Leonard — and LeBron’s early decision impacts that, too. If LeBron was hesitating, it gave the Spurs some leverage with the Lakers (“if you want to be sure to get LeBron, you’ve got to get Kawhi, and we need a better offer”). LeBron has jumped in with both feet. The Lakers won free agency. For the Spurs the big picture doesn’t change, they can play it slow until they get an offer they really want. They can try to squeeze the 76ers for leverage. But the Lakers landed the big fish, they are not going to make any panic moves now.
This move is a huge gamble for LeBron on two fronts, but both ultimately tied to his legacy.
He’s betting he can build a title team up in Los Angeles — something never easy to do, despite the advantages of Los Angeles. LeBron knows that him alone plus the existing Lakers’ core — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, etc. — is at best the three seed in the West, probably more like a four/five seed, with a second-round ceiling. LeBron wants rings, he wants a banner at Staples Center and his jersey retired there with the other greats. LeBron has done the “carry an inferior team” thing, he’s past the point in his career where he wants to keep doing it. He’s banking that both role players — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who shares an agent with LeBron), Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee have already come on board — and another superstar or two will join him in L.A. Maybe not immediately this summer, but that it will happen. Sooner rather than later.
LeBron’s biggest bet is possibly tarnishing his legacy itself.
Wilt Chamberlain came to the Lakers and won a ring. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced his way to Los Angeles via trade, and he won rings and MVPs. Shaquille O’Neal came to the Lakers and won rings. Their legends and stars grew because they were Lakers.
That’s the bar. Making the Lakers into a threat to the Warriors that just can’t get over the hump the next four or five years is not good enough. Win a title or two and LeBron adds to his legacy as one of the greats the game has ever seen (a legacy that is now secure, the only question is just how high people ultimately rank him). He can grow his brand and his star.
Fall short and that will stain his legacy. Not indelibly, but when the comparisons come to Kobe Bryant and the other Lakers/NBA greats, the rings argument will come up. Fair or not. That is life in Los Angeles.
LeBron believes he is ready for it.
He’s bet a lot that he’s right.