LeBron James' Lakers free agency decision is bold, but would you bet against him?
James didn't need Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins or any other co-star in order to commit
LeBron James didn't need a super-team. He Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday about 20 hours after Paul George announced he was staying with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kawhi Leonard is still a member of the San Antonio Spurs. DeMarcus Cousins is still a free agent. The Lakers might have been trying, but they didn't acquire another star to prove to James that they could build something special in order for him to commit to a four-year, $154 million deal. They didn't need to.
Three of James' best teammates, for now, are the 20-year-old Brandon Ingram, the 20-year-old Lonzo Ball and the 22-year-old Kyle Kuzma. It is unclear how many of them will actually play with James rather than being included in a trade. In choosing the Lakers, James has made a bet that the combination of his presence, these young players and significant salary-cap space will be enough to draw elite talent at some point. Los Angeles might not look like a title contender now, especially in a world where the Golden State Warriors exist, but -- in James' estimation, presumably -- it will.
This is a bold move, but an astute one. It doesn't take an expert NBA observer to know that players, and star players in particular, generally love playing in Los Angeles. The Lakers' reputation had been down in the dumps for a while, but Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka's front office has turned that around with an eye on this summer. And James' decision to come aboard on a long-term deal gives them more leverage in trade negotiations right now.
Before this league-changing news, the San Antonio Spurs could have been asking for the moon in a Leonard trade, arguing that the Lakers were essentially trading for two franchise players. Now that is no longer possible, and Los Angeles management can take a more measured approach when it comes to roster-building, secure in its knowledge that there isn't a more attractive destination. Aside from when the 73-win Warriors had cap room in 2016 thanks to the cap spike, there might never have been a more attractive destination.
Maybe Leonard will be a Laker before long. Maybe Cousins will join the team on a one-year deal, though that looks a lot less likely after the Lakers agreed to a reported one-year, $12 million deal to bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a fellow Klutch Sports Group client. Maybe James will be OK with mentoring a bunch of young guys -- and likely some vets who sign in order to play with him -- and waiting for a trade or next summer's free agency to bring a genuine co-star. Regardless of how the rest of this offseason goes, James clearly did not make this move simply based on where he would have best chance of knocking off the Warriors immediately. He did it based on what he wanted the next phase of his career to look like.
A good way of thinking about this: If James had chosen to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it would be a relatively safe call. His life wouldn't change all that much, and by staying in the Eastern Conference, he would have an easier time getting to the NBA Finals. Going to the Lakers is not quite as safe -- he is joining a storied franchise with championship expectations and he will have to battle Golden State and Houston just for the chance to compete for another ring. The possibilities, however, are much more exciting.
In Los Angeles, James will not only be in better position to pursue his business interests and send his son to a basketball powerhouse high school, he will be able to play a role in creating a powerhouse of his own over the next few years. This will require him starting from scratch in terms of building chemistry with his teammates, just like he did when he left Cleveland eight years ago and when he returned four years ago. No one knows better than James what a challenge that is, but James knows how rewarding it can be when it works out, too.
Considering the history of this player and this franchise, do you want to bet against it working out?
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