LeBron James is now on a minutes restriction for the Los Angeles Lakers, who are poised to miss the playoffs in James’ first year in the Western Conference. The bulk of NBA writers are now backpedaling after unequivocally claiming that James was worth a guaranteed 40 wins, even out West.
Meanwhile, the dysfunction in LA is obvious.
They’re a team run on brand and brand alone, with an underwhelming court product that is not championship-level by any measure. And in the face of LeBron’s brand, the Lakers have immediately let him have the right of way despite their own purported stature in the basketball community. James has come first, and with it has been a series of bad front office moves that, while initially pleasing to LeBron, were obvious mistakes to anyone watching.
Now there’s real rumblings about what can actually be done to fix LA’s problem, particularly as it’s unclear whether stars outside of Anthony Davis really want to join James. Kawhi Leonard apparently does not.
To that end, the most radical suggestion has been to simply trade LeBron.
That was the idea put forth by Jeff Van Gundy this week, who said he felt as though exploration into the idea was necessary. Van Gundy suggested sending James to the Los Angeles Clippers for cap space, which would give the Lakers a better chance at signing Kevin Durant this summer.
This could never happen. LA has been waiting for another talent like James to pick them despite their obvious organizational flaws, and now they have their man. Even if hardcore Kobe Bryant fans continue to gripe about James, none of them will be tuning out the purple and gold anytime soon. A hate watch is still eyeballs on the screen, and thus the revenue keeps pouring in for the Lakers.
Los Angeles hasn’t put smart money into the rest of their franchise — front office, trainers, coaching staff — and instead have decided to play favorites with the hiring of Magic Johnson and Bryant’s ex-agent in Rob Pelinka. That they’ve been unable to find success in the first year with James isn’t surprising.
This story is one that plays out over and over again when billionaires in professional sports are left to their own devices. Money and prior success plays into owners’ confirmation bias about themselves, that everything they touch turns to gold and that they’re experts not only in their own field, but in related ones as well. That’s what gives us hirings like Johnson and Pelinka, all while better organizations, with better management, outmaneuver them.
Across the hall is a perfect example of an owner, just as passionate as the one in Lakerland, who has deferred to and hired experts as an investment in his organization.
Steve Ballmer is a billionaire who could have fallen prey to the same kind of hirings. But Ballmer didn’t choose the flashy smiles and championship rings of former players. Instead he hired folks with proven track records and set up the Clippers for both short term and long term success by hiring the right people (Michael Winger and Jerry West) and letting the butterfly effect of those additions play out.
The difference in management between two teams sharing one building makes comparative assessment that much easier. For Ballmer, winning is the only thing to focus on, and the decision-making of the Clippers supports that. That same clarity can’t be seen around Jeanie Buss, the Lakers owner who appears focused on many things outside of the on-court performance.
The Lakers shouldn’t trade LeBron. But they also shouldn’t cater to him in the way they have, either. James is an aging star who will likely continue to miss chunks of time. People think that skill degradation is the natural path of a guy like LeBron. That’s possible. But we’ve also seen players head into their later years while continuing to perform at a high level … for 50 games a season.
James’ aggregate impact could continue to wane, and he already doesn’t want to be the play-making guy. At least on paper, it’s seemed like LeBron has wanted to add help to the Lakers so he doesn’t have to do anything himself. Younger talent like Davis would certainly do that.
But that also means that Los Angeles shouldn’t acquiesce to every whim James has on roster and coaching changes, especially as he’s proven time and time again to be exceptionally poor at choosing both. James’ most successful years came with the Miami Heat, where Pat Riley was an expert at both managing personalities and being too strong a figure to intimidate. James wanted Erik Spoelstra fired in 2010, a move all involved are glad wasn’t made.
Then again, I’m not entirely convinced it’s all about basketball for the Lakers. Buss herself is a brand. We know her face, and her quotes, and her relationship status. She’s at the polar opposite of guys like Peter Holt, who most wouldn’t recognize if they passed him on the streets of San Antonio.
The Lakers, and everything that comes with them, are a brand, and NBA teams are businesses. Purists might scoff at this, but it’s not crazy that ownership could see Los Angeles’ path to success is as a marketing concern and not a basketball operation in the decades to come. While there’s nothing wrong with the Lakers not putting basketball first, or with Buss hiring those she trusts who are close to her, the idea that the team is struggling on the court for reasons outside of those major factors is an argument made in bad faith.
The Lakers don’t need to win games to be a going concern. LA is a branding mecca, and it’s certainly not hurt their footprint to have won fewer than 40 games since 2013. If the on-court product was clearly the top priority, hiring guys like Johnson and Pelinka wouldn’t have been the moves they made. Those, like many other decisions, were more about the appearance of running a team rather than the actual knowledge of running one.
The Lakers are a bad basketball team who, if their main goal is to win games, is run poorly. They’ve got a hole to dig themselves out of, and there’s some tough decisions ahead regarding James. Trading him is patently crazy, either from a basketball or branding perspective. But the pitching of that idea supports the feeling around the league that something real needs to be done to get James back in the playoff conversation, and that LA’s problems run deeper than just this season.