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Lakers star LeBron James responds to criticism about the number of pending free agents on his All-Star roster

LeBron James, Lakers

LeBron James is a master manipulator. When the Los Angeles Lakers superstar drafted a team of All-Stars that included several impending free agents, then, the basketball world was quick to assume he had an ulterior motive in putting together his roster other than beating Giannis Antetokounmpo’s team.

On Saturday, though, LeBron James pushed back on that narrative while simultaneously admitting that player movement helps drive league popularity.

“I think that’s a great conversation. Everyone kind of gets up for fantasy basketball talk,”  the four-time MVP told Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times when asked about choosing so many soon-to-be free agents for his All-Star squad.

“Guys that are restricted free agents, free agents, I don’t know, player options. That’s all part of the speculation that continues to drive our support. It’s all good and well and dandy but for me I picked according to my draft board and according to who was best available.”

How the draft unfolded supports James’ claim. He chose Kevin Durant with the first selection for the second year running, which led the Golden State Warriors superstar to quip, “What else he supposed to do?”

Indeed, Durant is broadly considered the second-best player in the world behind James, and he has two straight NBA Finals MVP trophies to show for it.

After Antetokounmpo chose Steph Curry with the second pick, James — limited to picking from the starters — went with Kyrie Irving, who recently made headlines by walking back his preseason pledge to re-sign with the Boston Celtics this summer.

James went on and rounded out his starting five with Toronto Raptors wing Kawhi Leonard, another free agent, and MVP frontrunner James Harden, who’s under contract with the Houston Rockets for the foreseeable future.

When it came time to select bench players, did anyone expect him to choose anyone other than Anthony Davis? The New Orleans Pelicans big man is a near-consensus top-five player, and is a perfect fit for the All-Star setting where he won MVP honors in 2017 by scoring a record 52 points.

Golden State marksman Klay Thompson, another free agent this summer, is similarly well-suited for a glorified pickup game, especially playing next to James.

Might James have been sending hints to prospective free agents with his selections? Perhaps. But just as likely is that he chose the team who he thought gives him the best chance to beat Antetokounmpo’s. After all, it’s not like something as ultimately meaningless as the All-Star draft would really influence where a player decides to continue his career come July.