When LeBron James started winning rings and at least making it to the Finals every year (eight and counting) coincided with when he took charge of his own destiny and got into team building.
He chose to break with tradition and partner up with two other stars — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — down in Miami. It was a move changed the landscape of the NBA. When the Heat situation no longer worked for him, LeBron went home again and pushed for roster moves he wanted — starting with moving Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love — and it all led to the four trips to the Finals and the first title for the city of Cleveland in more than five decades.
Now LeBron comes to Los Angeles — however, the process with the Lakers is not going to be as fast. It will take a little patience.
Heading into free agency there was no doubt LeBron James wanted to be a Laker, but plenty of people in the league were not convinced he would go on his own — he’d want another superstar player to come first. L.A. had to set up a team that could win right now because LeBron at age 33 was not going to wait around. Everyone knew LeBron plus the existing Lakers core is not going to be enough in the brutal West.
LeBron once again defied expectations and jumped in with both feet — he agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.
Now it becomes about team building in Los Angeles.
That building starts with LeBron trusting Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in a way he never trusted Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers organization — he gave the Lakers four years (three plus one year with a player option, technically). In Cleveland, it was a series of one-year deals, and even when they won a championship it was only two years. He never gave up leverage, he pushed them as an organization (with mixed results). In Los Angeles, he planted a flag for the long haul.
How is this Lakers team going to get built? Patience not rushed decisions. This is not just a summer of 2018 project, lining up the right players to contend will stretch into 2019. At least.
Kawhi Leonard is the first name to come up — and make no mistake, LeBron would love to have the Spurs’ Finals MVP on the wing. If healthy, Leonard is exactly the kind of running mate LeBron needs to start to threaten Golden State — an elite switchable defender who can hit threes and create off the dribble. Leonard is an MVP-level player when right.
However, the Spurs want to extract the best price they can for surrendering their best player. As they should. San Antonio is not going to move fast, and they want to drag multiple teams into a bidding war — Philadelphia wants to play, Boston is on the fringes, and the Spurs are trying to lure them in. San Antonio is going to slow play this.
The Lakers are not waiting around. Los Angeles doesn’t feel the pressure to land Leonard to get LeBron. The sides will keep talking, but a trade that guts the L.A. roster of young players isn’t mandatory to get the big prize. Los Angeles has what it most wanted.
Instead, the Lakers’ moves in the wake of signing LeBron show a team thinking about the summer of 2019. Everything has been one-year deals — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (for $12 million), Lance Stephenson ($4.4 million room exception), and JaVale McGee (for the minimum). Those are players who can help the Lakers compete now but who do not carry salaries over into next summer.
That summer of 2019 is when a host of free agents come up: Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe, and Kemba Walker are the biggest names, plus guys such as Kevin Love and Al Horford have player options. Anyone who comes on the market, the Lakers can be in the mix to land if they so choose.
The Lakers are also positioned to go after any player who becomes available in a trade — the Lakers have a nice young core that can be moved for the right star.
That young core is excited about LeBron to the Lakers.
Now comes the harsh light of evaluation on those players — which ones can help win a title for the Lakers, and which ones are out. The days of patient evaluation and growth measurement are over in a lot of ways, it’s about winning and winning big. Can Brandon Ingram help with that? Lonzo Ball? Kyle Kuzma?
Julius Randle could be back with the Lakers on a one-year deal, or if he signs the qualifying offer because there are not other offers out there (it’s a very tight market), but the Lakers are not sacrificing their cap space for anyone.
Flexibility is the buzzword for Los Angeles going forward. That and patience.
The Lakers trust that the combined gravity of playing with LeBron and the Lakers’ brand/market is going to bring in star players. LeBron has bet on that as well. It’s just not going to be instantaneous. Maybe the best options pop up this summer (Leonard). Maybe it’s something unexpected closer to the trade deadline. Maybe it’s the summer of 2019. Whatever it is, the Lakers have left themselves the flexibility to go after it and make it happen.
LeBron is back in the business of team building — and this could be his most legacy-defining building project to date. But now he has a partner.