The NBA East just became a lesser place, which is good if you’re based therein. (The Atlanta Hawks are, not that it’ll matter for the next few years.) Not since 2010 has a team not employing LeBron James won the Eastern Conference. That will change next year. The great man has chosen to – cue the Pet Shop Boys – go west.
When LeBron lifts a finger, the NBA breaks into palpitations. The greatest enduring joke in sports is that he hasn’t won an MVP award since 2013, even as everyone knows he’s the league’s driving force every hour of every day. In a weird way, that says it all: LeBron James is so massive he transcends even the biggest baubles. And now he’s headed to the Lakers, who have set the standard for bigness since Bill Russell retired.
This might seem another example of LeBron doing as he did in the summer of 2010 – cherry-picking a place guaranteed to yield bountiful results. Best player to biggest franchise: What could possibly go wrong? But this isn’t nearly the ring grab of LeBron to South Beach or even (and especially) Kevin Durant to Golden State. The Lakers just went 35-47. They last reached the playoffs in 2013. They have no Dwyane Wade, no Chris Bosh, no Kyrie Irving.
They’re based in the same division as the team that has won three of the past four NBA titles and were denied the fourth only because Draymond Green got suspended and allowed LeBron the sliver of needed daylight. The Lakers play in the same conference as Houston, which won 65 games last season and might be champions had not Chris Paul been hurt in Game 5 of the Western finals.
The Lakers play in a conference that has Durant, Paul, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Russell Westbook, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Damon Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge and, at least on paper, Kawhi Leonard. The one knock on LeBron’s hold over the East was that the East never offered a real challenger. (You’ll recall the 60-win Hawks getting swept by Cleveland in 2015.) The West offers nothing but.
Were LeBron seeking the softest landing, he’d have signed with Philadelphia as the cherry atop Sam Hinkie’s Process. That he chose not to stay with the Cavaliers was confirmation of what many had believed these past four seasons – that his return to Cleveland had everything to do with his affection for Northeast Ohio and little to do with the maladroit organization. He came back and delivered his title, and now he’s taking his talents to Tinseltown.
That part – LeBron in L.A. – bothers me a little, but only a little. Wilt wound up there. So did Kareem. So did Shaq. (So, briefly, did Dwight Howard.) We say again: The Lakers cannot offer LeBron any form of validation he hasn’t already earned. This is just a new challenge in a different city, and in a much tougher conference.
The Lakers’ second-best player – if we go by 2017-2018 win shares – would have been Julius Randle, but they renounced their rights to the restricted free agent on Monday. Second-best now is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the former Georgia Bulldog who just re-signed with L.A. There’s also Lonzo Ball, who if you go by ESPN headlines is the Next Big Thing – or, if you’ve actually watched him play, a good-passing point guard who can’t shoot a lick. (He also has the Stage Dad to end all Stage Dads.)
Just by signing LeBron, the Lakers will be a playoff team. And he did just carry a Cleveland team that would have been a 50-loss team without him to the NBA finals. He did that, however, in the East. Even he can’t manage that in the West. (We saw how those Cavs fared against the Warriors.) As odd as this sounds, the guy who once joined his Super Friends in Miami has chosen to ply his trade with a rebuilding team.
At issue is how fast the Lakers can reconfigure to suit him. Leonard has said he wants out of San Antonio, where he scarcely played last season, and will sign with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent next summer. But if you’re the Spurs, do you hand LeBron a new Super Friend? Do the Lakers have anything Gregg Popovich really wants? (The thought of LaVar Ball telling the irascible one how to coach is, we concede, delicious.)
It’s hard to imagine the Lakers challenging Golden State or Houston next season, and – for the first time since LeBron turned pro – time is an issue. He’ll turn 34 on Dec. 30. He’s signing for four years, meaning this is surely his last contract. One day after landing LeBron, the Lakers are already on the clock.
In the East, LeBron-less for the first time since 2003, Philadelphia and Boston have stolen a march. And now we ask: Had the Hawks known last summer, when their reset began in earnest, that LeBron would be a Laker 12 months hence, would they have hedged a few bets?
Probably not, but there’s no denying that the specter of LeBron James influenced an entire conference. The Hawks assembled some good-to-very-good teams over their decade of playoff-qualifying, and they were 0-12 against him in postseason games. Now he’s gone, and every franchise based east of the mighty Mississippi – save Memphis and New Orleans, which aren’t far east of it – bids him a heartfelt farewell.