Why LeBron James joining Lakers in free agency is a crushing blow to Rockets, rest of West's up-and-comers
LeBron just vaulted the Lakers into the Western Conference's top tier, and the Rockets are the biggest loser
The Lakers immediately vault from Western Conference also-ran to potential title contender. Las Vegas' reaction to the signing put the Lakers right behind the Golden State Warriors for title odds, at 7-2, according to the Westgate SuperBook.
CBSSports.com's projections had the Lakers as a 29-win team before the signing was announced. With the addition of the best player on earth, the Lakers became projected as a 49-win team -- and who knows what other top-notch acquisitions Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson can bring to Staples Center now that the world's best player has planted his flag there. The Lakers have already secured the top offseason grade among NBA teams by acquiring the biggest prize; that grade can only improve over the next few weeks.
The secondary winner of LeBron's decision to leave Cleveland for Los Angeles? The Boston Celtics. A clear path to the Finals has opened up for the Celtics. Boston likely would have been favored to win the East anyway in 2018-19 since Danny Ainge's team will be adding the two stars who were injured when the shorthanded Celtics were stymied in seven games by LeBron's Cavs in the East Finals. Now, as the Cavaliers presumably shift to rebuilding mode, the Celtics also avoid the possibility that LeBron-in-Philadelphia would elevate the 76ers to the favorite in the East.
The Lakers and the Celtics are the clear winners. But who are the biggest losers in LeBron's decision?
It's every team in the West not named the Golden State Warriors.
Most of all, it's the Houston Rockets.
In less than 24 hours, here's what happened to the reigning Western Conference runner-up:
The Rockets were reported to be meeting with free agent guard Michael Carter-Williams, a 25 percent career 3-point shooter whose courtship smacks of desperation.
The Rockets lost the LeBron James sweepstakes hours after re-signing Chis Paul to a max deal. The tantalizing possibility of forming a superteam of LeBron, James Harden and Paul, a team that would immediately compete with the Warriors, died on the vine.
Worse, the Rockets presumably got vaulted in the Western Conference Power Rankings by the Lakers when LeBron chose to come West instead of staying in Cleveland or hopping to Philadelphia (maybe the Rockets are still better than this current Lakers roster, but it seems fair to assume that Magic and Pelinka will tweak it further before the 2018-19 season).
You can't overstate what a gut punch the past few days have been to Rockets fans, who a little more than a month ago had two chances to knock off the dynastic Warriors -- two Western Conference Finals elimination games that the Rockets led by double-digits at halftime.
LeBron's move to Los Angeles sucks for other up-and-coming Western Conference teams as well. With LeBron in the West, April's play-in game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets in the final game of the regular season would have been meaningless, because both teams would have been playing for ninth place, not eighth.
The Utah Jazz shift from an intriguing young group that could make a jump in the next couple years to a team that could stay firmly ensconced in the second tier. The Denver Nuggets' long game now looks even longer. The idea of the Timberwolves making a jump toward the top tier in the West seems like a pipe dream.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, just hours off the euphoria of doing the impossible and re-signing Paul George to a four-year max deal, might be looking at a ceiling of exactly where they finished this season: fourth place, and a potential second-round face-off with whichever superteam finishes atop the West.
As for the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans? Their owners better hope their fan bases are OK with either plenty of early playoff exits in the next few years or a pivot to rebuilding, because there's simply no path to a title, or even to a Western Conference Finals appearance, for any of those teams.
But it stings most for the Rockets, if only because they were so close last season -- and one month after being eliminated, their championship window might have already shut.
Is this an overreaction? Perhaps. Maybe the Lakers don't nab another star this offseason, and that team becomes a younger version of last year's Cavs: LeBron and a bunch of dudes (although Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball certainly have the potential to become stars, someday). Maybe age plus the toll of four incredibly long seasons catches up to the Warriors next season, and they begin a regression. Maybe the Rockets retain Clint Capela to keep their core intact and they're still a title contender next season (although I still think the loss of Ariza will come back to haunt the Rockets). Maybe Daryl Morey continues to pull some magic out of his cap, and maybe Tilman Fertitta tells Morey to simply go for broke and ignore the salary cap.
Hell, maybe Adam Silver will realize LeBron's move to the West is the move that finally killed the conference playoffs, and he'll decide to scrap the East vs. West structure and re-seed all 16 teams at the beginning of the playoffs.
Or maybe, Occam's razor-style, the most obvious prediction will end up being the correct one: Over the next several seasons, there will be a clear top tier in the NBA. There will be the Warriors and the Lakers in the West, and the Celtics and the Sixers in the East. The Rockets will shift from the best regular-season team in the NBA -- a group that was this close to winning a title -- to the best of the rest, just one more "almost-there" or "not-quite" in a league that's becoming filled with them.
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