LeBron James alters face of NBA again, bets he can add to legacy in Los Angeles

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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.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.