The Risks and Rewards of LeBron James on the Lakers

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LeBron James is the greatest player of this generation, he might be the greatest player of all time, and as of Sunday night, he’s on the Lakers. This is strange to think about in July, and when LeBron is in purple and gold opening the season on national television, I’m sure it will be twice as bizarre. For now though, Sunday’s announcement was nowhere near as dramatic as The Decision in 2010 or LeBron’s Sports Illustrated letter in 2014. The news broke when Klutch Sports released a three-line statement which read: “LeBron James, four-time NBA MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP, fourteen-time NBA All-Star, and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist has agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.”

So there you go.

The Lakers always made the most sense. After years of fumbling around with a rebuild that was going nowhere, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka played the past 12 months perfectly. It required several trades and rigorous adherence to a plan that always pointed to this summer, but they entered the offseason with cap space to recruit two stars, and young players who could be traded to add a third. This was the first time in six years that L.A. recruiting pitches were more substantial than “We have banners and great weather.”

In the end, the Lakers were attractive to LeBron for many of the same reasons the Cavs were in 2014. They are asset-rich and perfectly equipped to help LeBron build a superteam for the next phase of his career. L.A. is also (sort of) home to LeBron and his family. So the package the Lakers could sell makes sense in ways that alternatives in Houston and Philadelphia never quite did.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about this chapter of LeBron’s career for a few reasons: 1. The relationship with Kobe is going to be incredibly weird and entertaining, and even if this experiment fails on the court, we’re getting four years to watch those guys interact. Also, that entire sentence applies double to Magic Johnson. 2. If LeBron can take this Lakers team to the Finals in the next two years, he’s probably going to be facing Kyrie Irving and the Celtics in a series that will split the earth in half. 3. This is, without question, the biggest challenge of LeBron’s career.

It’s difficult to imagine at the moment, but it’s important to be clear-eyed about the real possibility that LeBron on the Lakers is disappointing. It probably won’t be Jordan on the Wizards, but it could definitely become something like Joe Montana on the Chiefs. The key difference from that timeline for Montana—and the reason this is a risk—is that with LeBron it won’t be easy to simply just pretend that none of this ever happened. The Lakers move is coming after a year in which LeBron was more or less universally celebrated as this generation’s version of Jordan. Now he’s pushing all those chips back to the middle of the table. The Lakers are not the Chiefs. He will be at the center of the sport no matter what direction this goes.

He wasn’t a perfect player in Cleveland this year, but it didn’t matter. LeBron has already accomplished so much, and answered so many criticisms, at this point most basketball fans just want to enjoy this. So when the Cavs won this season, it was because he did something heroic. When the Cavs lost, it was on everyone else. He was almost post-criticism. Many in the media answered Cavs failures by asking why Dan Gilbert would ever trade Kyrie Irving when he didn’t absolutely have to, but not many asked why LeBron never went to Kyrie directly and tried recruiting him to stay.

LeBron James,Isaiah Thomas
Mark J. Terrill/AP

It’s fair to wonder how much longer any LeBron criticism will read like blasphemy. He has put together a credible case for being superhuman thus far, but at some point his talent will begin declining over the next few years. He’s already stopped playing defense for long stretches of the regular season, and there have been times when it’s clear he’s pacing himself on both ends.

If nothing else, everyone can agree that LeBron will need other stars around him. That will be the most interesting test. Beyond what he’s done on the court, half of LeBron’s mystique is rooted in his ability to conjure empires wherever he goes. But he’s older now, and he’s of a different generation than most of the stars he’ll be recruiting over the next few years. Most of his Banana Boat peers on their way out of the league, and it remains to be seen whether the chance to play with LeBron will be as attractive for guys who didn’t grow up with him.

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Kyrie Irving and Paul George have already turned down the chance to play with LeBron. He is a domineering presence in a literal sense, but that also applies in the abstract: it’s hard for a young superstar to grow past a certain level so long as LeBron is intent on being the biggest star on the planet. So while it’s probably a little early to go DEFCON: TAKE with the “Do today’s stars want to play with LeBron James??” questions, that’s going to be a legitimate point of interest over the next few years. He’ll need help to stay at the top of the league, and his influence on his peers is more uncertain than it once was. Landing Kawhi Leonard seems likely, but Kawhi alone is not enough to counter with Golden State. So what next?

There’s also an ineffable quality to the risk in all this. While some of LeBron’s mystique is rooted in his ability to build superteams—he and the Heat were the ones who made that term ubiquitous—what’s really made him special is the ability to chart his own course through NBA history. He’s been revolutionary as a businessman and team-builder in equal measure, and he’s managed his own career better than anyone could have imagined when he entered the league fifteen years ago. That quality will be in the first paragraph of every LeBron story whenever he retires. On the court and off, he sees paths where no one else does.

The Lakers are a path that everyone saw. After five years of rumors connecting L.A. to half the league’s stars, and decades of superstars actually making that move, joining this organization almost feels like a cliche. Something about it feels beneath LeBron, and it could get a little bit depressing as the years pass. If he can’t make the Finals and struggles to attract other stars over the next few years, there’s a chance that we will be looking at him marooned on an island not unlike Kobe Bryant, only Kobe was living that timeline after winning five titles for a team and fanbase that worshipped him. LeBron would be living that scenario as the guy who joined the Basketball Yankees and didn’t win anything. Failure will bring more impatience, and more drama, but also the risk that the general public will be tired of all this.

LeBron is keenly aware of how he’s perceived. It’s probably why he announced this decision on July 1st with very little fanfare; he could sense that this was not the summer to draw out an announcement and make a spectacle out of this decision. He is also well-aware that at this point in his career, he’s chasing ghosts. Legacy matters to him. And while the Lakers move feels less revolutionary than some his past moves, history around his Heat decision has been airbrushed in large part because it worked. The same can happen in L.A.

Speaking of which, if we’re talking about the risks of life with the Lakers, we should consider the alternative. For the next 12 months, LeBron on the Lakers will be the biggest story in sports. His relationships with Kobe, Magic, and Lonzo will be the source of endless fascination, and they’ll probably add Kawhi to the mix, too. Off the court he can get deeper into the entertainment business while his family settles in Southern California. On the court, there’s no bigger platform in the NBA, and maybe in all of sports, than what the Lakers can offer. The Warriors currently have the most dominant team assembled in at least 20 years. LeBron will take the next few seasons and try to beat them, and the whole world will be watching.

His game may have to evolve as he ages. He’ll have to recruit stars who are 5-10 years younger than he is. He’ll be dealing with a conference full of much tougher challenges than the Pacers and Raptors, not to mention Golden State and Boston teams that have near-flawless foundations and look poised to own the foreseeable future of the league. Meanwhile, the Lakers just signed Javale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Lance Stephenson. The odds are not in LeBron’s favor for a number of reasons. If he can find a way to succeed anyway, there’s a very good chance that we end this Lakers chapter talking about him as the most dominant presence the NBA has ever seen, and a more transcendent player than Jordan. And that would be the reward.

By: Andrew Sharp, Sports Illustrated

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