The notion that LeBron James could one day join the Los Angeles Lakers has been rumored from time to time over the years, but until recently, it always seemed like a pipedream. This past month, however, the story has gained considerable traction.
There was the unexpected departure of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ General Manager, David Griffin, shortly before the draft and free agency were about to occur. James was said to be shocked and disappointed by the development. The team was without a GM for a lengthy and important part of the offseason.
After losing in the finals in June, the Cavaliers knew they had to markedly improve their roster this summer to have a realistic chance of beating Golden State next year. When so many elite players unexpectedly joined new teams, but none went to Cleveland, James could not have been happy. Adding Jimmy Butler or Paul George could have tipped the scales in Cleveland’s favor next season.
Then came the shocking news that Cleveland’s all-star point guard, Kyrie Irving, was tired of playing Robin to James’ Batman and was demanding a trade. Who wants to leave a team that has gone to three straight NBA finals, is likely to go again next year, and features the game’s best player? The answer is, no one, unless there is something else going on.
Reports of friction between James and Irving began to leak. There was a story that James had privately recommended to the front office that Irving be traded for Chris Paul. It was also rumored that Irving wants to leave now because he knows James is going to depart after next season, possibly to join the Lakers, and he does not want to be stuck on a depleted Cavalier’s squad at the bottom of the standings.
Then there was the incident at Harrison Barnes’ recent wedding. Irving attended the reception and was caught on videotape joining other NBA stars, notably rival Stephon Curry, in mocking James.
James has a home in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, where it is reported that his wife would prefer to live full time. He owns a successful business in Los Angeles known as “Uninterrupted,” which has its offices on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Finally, just this week, James cleared up any question about where he calls home these days. In response to a tweet from Jamal Crawford inviting him to visit Seattle, James responded: “May have to make a day trip up there when I’m back home in L.A., bro!
For at least the past decade, James has been the best player in the NBA. He is arguably the greatest player of all time, or at least in the discussion along with Michael Jordan and a few others. Even today, as he prepares for his 15th NBA season, he is the only player in the league whose mere presence on any NBA roster makes that team an immediate title contender.
If James wants to join the Lakers next year, Magic Johnson will sprint over to Brentwood with the contract in hand. Yet, no matter how anxious Johnson might be to see the team become a contender again, he might want to think twice about it.
For his career, James has averaged 27.1 points per game on 50% shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists, but he will turn 34 early next season. He has already played in 1,061 NBA games since the age of 18 and averaged an astounding 39 minutes a contest over 15 straight years in which his teams went deep into the playoffs nearly every season. That is a lot of wear and tear on the body even for Superman.
It is hard to forget that Kobe Bryant suffered his Achilles injury when he was 34 years old which in effect ended his career, although he continued to play off and on for three more seasons depleting the team’s cap space.
Are the Lakers going to give James, at 34, the five-year contract at $40 of $50 million a year that he will want?
They can’t take a risk on a short term deal because to sign him at all will require getting rid of most of the players the team has invested in over the past three years to clear enough cap space. If he were to leave after a year, where would that leave the Lakers franchise?
Then there is the look and feel of the situation. Will Lakers fans embrace James after he has been a fierce opponent of the purple and gold for 16 years? Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the Lakers late in their careers. Even though the team went to the finals that year, does anyone look back on their iconic careers and connect them with the Lakers?
All players have earned the right to move to a new team when they become a free agent. But even if James eventually leaves the game as the best player of all time, it will be hard to look back on his career and think of him as a true Laker. He will be joining the team too late to be remembered in the same way that Lakers fans will always worship Bryant, Johnson, James Worthy, Jerry West or Elgin Baylor, who spent their entire careers with the team.
Many fans already have a favorite player on the roster. As noted above, signing James puts everyone other than Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball at risk. Players like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. and Ivica Zubac could be shipped out reminiscent of the controversial trade of D’Angelo Russell this summer.
The Lakers couldn’t even afford to keep David Nwaba’s meager salary on the books when they had to clear cap space to sign Kentavious Caldwell Pope this summer.
Finally, James will dictate the style of basketball the team plays. When you have a superstar on your team, everything is built around that player and he is the real coach. This will require a major adjustment to the system Luke Walton has been trying to install where all the parts are interchangeable.
Of course, those who advocate for the Lakers signing James scoff at all these concerns: As soon as he leads the Lakers to a title, all will be forgiven and forgotten.
There is always a possibility that James and Irving will repair their relationship, win a championship together in Cleveland next season, and spend the rest of their careers in harmony with the Cavaliers. But with each passing day that seems less and less likely.
If the Lakers are his preferred destination, the front office must realize they are not getting a 28 year old James. Great as he is, in signing him to a long term deal at age 34, the risks could outweigh the potential rewards.