As free agency began at midnight Sunday, a party was being thrown in Oklahoma City, and they might as well have been dancing on the grave of the NBA's big-market appeal. Paul George had defiantly spurned the glitz, glamour and hometown allure of the Los Angeles Lakers to agree to a four-year deal to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a sign that winning and culture are now prioritized, that the ubiquity of TV broadcasts and worldwide endorsement deals means star players can make star money with star exposure outside of the biggest markets.
About 20 hours later, all of that went out the window. With one fell swoop, the Lakers -- the grandest of big-market teams -- were back atop the NBA pecking order.
The little guy was pushed aside like a grade-schooler when the high school kids enter the gym. It was the ultimate win for Goliath -- and when it comes to basketball, the Lakers and LeBron James are titans.
It would be one thing if the Lakers gave James the best chance of winning a title. Many thought George would sign on early, or that the Lakers would trade some of their young assets for Kawhi Leonard. There was no way LeBron would jump headfirst into the kiddie pool with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, with a cherubic lifeguard, Luke Walton, who was drafted into the NBA the same year as LeBron.
Or so we thought.
LeBron flew to L.A. on his private jet, talked with Lakers president Magic Johnson, who also happens to be one of James' basketball idols, and that was that. No long, drawn out process. No post on The Players Tribune. No Uninterrupted video. With a simple press release, LeBron's agency, Klutch Sports, put out for months: LeBron is the next Lakers star.
He could have gone to better basketball situations in Houston or Philadelphia or, heck, maybe even Cleveland. But LeBron was sold on the dream, like so many aspiring to create their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Whenever mired in the bowels of failure, or -- almost worse for Lakers fans -- mediocrity, a savior has arrived to put the team back on the championship stage: Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O'Neal. Now LeBron James.
While the Lakers have drafted superstars over the years like Magic himself and Kobe Bryant, it's usually been an outsider -- a tall, dark and handsome stranger strolling into Hollywood on his glistening steed as the rest of the NBA peers timidly from local saloon windows -- who has pushed them over the top. And LeBron is the baddest hombre of them all, the best player in the league, who, while past his prime in terms of age, is coming off what could have been the best offensive season of his 15-year, incredibly decorated career.
Johnson -- along with general manager Rob Pelinka and owner Jeanie Buss -- wrangled the big fish like he said he would, and now the Lakers are back to being the Lakers, complete with the accompanying vitriol from opposing fan bases. They didn't just get James on Sunday -- they restored the franchise's swagger. If you need evidence, look no further than the moves the Lakers made immediately after James announced his decision.
First they Lance Stephenson who, for the better part of the past decade, has been the closest thing James has to an arch-enemy (true arch-enemies actually have to win sometimes). The theater of courting Lance to play alongside LeBron is fit for the Kodak Theater, and next season we'll see it on a nightly basis at Staples Center.
Next JaVale McGee, who was known more for his rat-tail and "Shaqtin' A Fool" lifetime achievement award than basketball before winning back-to-back titles with the Warriors. McGee is the ultimate feast-or-famine player, and the Lakers took a big swing by adding him, but boy does he look the part. He's an instant fan favorite who treated last month's Warriors championship parade like his own personal EDM concert.
Johnson and Pelinka could have gone for more conservative pieces to put around LeBron -- but they're sending a message. Showtime is back, ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not.
And, of course, the second headliner is still out there, desperately waiting to be freed from his sliver and black cage in San Antonio.was only intensified by LeBron jumping on board, and the addition of arguably the best two-way player in the world would take the franchise from a pretty good Broadway show to a "Hamilton"-esque smash.
Even if the Spurs stingily refuse to deal Leonard to L.A., Magic can go after him and/or some of the other massive free agents next summer with the ultimate deal sweetener: A long-term commitment from LeBron.
We'll patiently wait for their next act, but the Lakers can take solace in the fact that they've accomplished their mission. They emerged from the LeBron sweepstakes victorious. The NBA road once again goes through Los Angeles.