Purple, it turns out, is a more regal complement to gold than wine. LeBron James cast off his Cleveland Cavaliers colors to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year, $153.3 million deal. Power has resided in the Western Conference for years, will LeBron James’ crown be enough to assume rule?
1. What does LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers mean for him and the league?
Bryan Toporek: It means we’re about to hear nonstop griping about the postseason format in the coming months.
If you thought the balance of power between the West and the East was lopsided last year, LeBron going to the Lakers is your worst nightmare. Whereas this adds yet another obstacle for the Golden State Warriors to overcome in the Western Conference playoff bracket, the Boston Celtics should be licking their chops at how wide-open the East is for their taking. At this point, the Celtics may be a safer pick to make the Finals than Golden State, which is an outrageous thing to say about a two-time defending champion.
For LeBron, this move seems to be bigger than basketball. The Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers were arguably better equipped for short-term title contention, but neither could help James shape his legacy like the Lakers can. If he guides L.A. back to the promised land, he’ll have built a championship squad out of thin air for the third time in three separate cities, further bolstering his case for being the greatest of all time. Meanwhile, team president Magic Johnson is a business and entertainment mogul who can serve as a blueprint for James’ off-court interests, setting him up for even greater success down the road.
Lakers exceptionalism is back, which means their fans will be insufferable on Twitter for the next four years. But adding the world’s best player to the league’s most iconic brand bodes well for the health of the NBA, which should draw a record amount of interest in 2018-19.
James Holas: With a single tweet, Klutch Sports marked the beginning of a new era in the NBA. For the last 15 years, LeBron James sat perched atop his Eastern throne, representing the conference in the past eight Finals with the Miami Heat and Cavaliers.
James is entering the final leg of a career for the ages. Act 1 of his career was him established himself as one of the best in the game, Act 2, dominating the East, dragging teams to the finals, and collecting rings. In the Final Act, LeBron James is heading out to the hostile west in an attempt to restore the once-great Lakers back to prominence.
What does this mean for the NBA? For starters, there will finally be a new king of the East. The Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers, and even the Washington Wizards will approach next season with renewed energy and focus, invigorated by the knowledge they don’t have to face the indomitable James to reach the finals.
For the West, a new dangerous, volatile element has entered the fray. Lonzo ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle kuzma were fun but non-threatening. LeBron James in town means on any given night, the Lakers can crack your head. Last year’s Cavaliers played uninspired, lethargic, heavy legged basketball. These young Lakers are the exact opposite and could possibly be the jolt LeBron James needs at this point in his career. Or, the young assets in Los Angeles also could be the keys that bring another superstar like Kawhi Leonard to Tinseltown.
But on his own or with another star in route, LeBron James just raised the profile of the Lakers to heights unseen in Los Angeles since the Kobe-Pau heydays.
The Lakers are back. God help us.
2. Without looking at further moves, how do the pieces currently in Los Angeles fit around him?
Bryan Toporek: One could easily make the case the Lakers’ main pieces fit better alongside LeBron than the Sixers’ main pieces would have.
On Saturday, Mo Dakhil of The Jump Ball explained why the basketball IQ and passing ability of rising second-year point guard Lonzo Ball could make him an ideal sidekick for James. If James does want to play off the ball more, as FS1’s Chris Broussard reported in May, having a co-floor general in Ball will present him with that opportunity. Brandon Ingram, meanwhile, took an enormous step forward as a sophomore after a somewhat underwhelming rookie season. While the comparisons between him and Kevin Durant have long been overblown, Ingram is a rangy 6’9″ forward who’s now going to feast on open looks thanks to the defensive attention opponents must devote toward James.
With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope coming back and JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson heading to L.A. as well, it appears as though the Lakers are focused on adding rangy defenders to pair alongside James and their young core. The signings of McGee and Stephenson may draw some eyerolls from the Lakers faithful–granted, skepticism of Stephenson due to off-court issues is entirely justified—but both players can be productive in limited roles.
The one remaining wild card is restricted free agent Julius Randle, but with cap space drying up quickly around the league, it’s difficult to find a non-L.A. landing spot that makes sense for him. Whether he re-signs on a long-term deal or accepts the one-year qualifying offer, he’s likely to return to the Lakers this year regardless. Alongside James, he could serve as a small-ball 5 and a secondary off-the-dribble creator, particularly in transition. A downsized lineup with Ball, KCP, Ingram, LeBron and Randle is a far better counter to Golden State’s Hamptons 5 than anything the Cavaliers could cobble together last season.
James Holas: LeBron is a super-powered skeleton key. There’s not a NBA roster where he is a terrible fit. He’s a never-before-seen blend of size, strength, speed, skill, and intelligence. As-is, he would amplify and improve the Lakers by a mile. James is most comfortable with the ball in his hands; the attention he commands will allow young wings Ingram and Kyle Kuzma tons open space to look for their offense.
James will also shift Lonzo Ball to more of a secondary playmaker, where he gets to learn the nuances of playing off ball under the tutelage of one of the greatest passing superstars of all time.
It’s imperative Zo’s jumper improves with LeBron in town, but coach Luke Walton has the luxury of staggering Bron and Zo, keeping a conductor on the court at all times.
3. How do you expect the rest of the roster to play out?
Bryan Toporek: I don’t expect the Lakers to trade for Kawhi Leonard unless the Spurs drop their price considerably. Sure, the Celtics or Sixers could trade for Leonard and convince him to re-sign next summer, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Paul George this past year, but the Lakers will have a far more convincing recruiting pitch with LeBron signed to a long-term deal. Rather than blowing apart their young core, the Lakers would be wise to retain Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart so they can see how the free-agent chips fall in 2019 before making any drastic trades.
If the Lakers re-sign Randle, they’ll still have three open roster spots, although they’ll be limited to handing out veteran minimum deals. Fellow Klutch client Nerlens Noel reportedly has the Lakers on his short list, according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports, which would be an enticing fit if he can keep his head on straight. Since Brook Lopez is likely a goner unless he’s willing to take a minimum deal, splitting center minutes between McGee and Noel—with Randle seeing spot minutes at the 5—would help the Lakers keep both of those guys fresh.
Beyond that, it’s a question of which ring-chasers are willing to take discounts to sign with the Lakers. Would Rajon Rondo be open to serving as Ball’s backup? Would Seth Curry take a one-year minimum deal to restore his value after sitting out the entire 2017-18 season with a leg injury? Might Chris Bosh be an option, as Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported Sunday evening?
Much like the Warriors in recent years, the Lakers should have their pick of the litter when it comes to ring-chasers. Expect them to add one backup big man, one backup point guard and likely one more bench shooter and/or wing defender.
James Holas: Well, I’m cheating because we’ve seen some moves at breakneck speeds already. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, and Javale McGee marched into Los Angeles on the heels of Bron signing. Stephenson and KCP provide some shooting, toughness, and depth on the wings, while Javale showed his worth as a shot blocker and a finisher in the playoffs with Golden State this year.
If I’m the Lakers, I’m moving heaven, hell, and Earth (and Ingram, Kuzma, and/or Ball) to get Kawhi Leonard in purple and gold.
The youth movement in LA was fine. Ingram has star potential, Ball is going to be really good and Kuzma has a bright NBA future as a supplemental scorer. All well and good! Kawhi is only 27 and, when healthy, is a top 5 player, elite on both sides of the ball.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have their work cut out for them this summer. Giving LeBron the tools he’ll need to elevate the Lakers back to relevance is priority number one. The heaviest lifting has already been done, LeBron is now a Laker. Let’s see if Magic has another trick up his sleeve.