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LeBron James (and Magic Johnson) made the Lakers exceptional again

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Lakers exceptionalism lives again.

Getty Images/SB Nation illustration

The Lakers have been dead and buried for most of this decade.

Since winning the NBA championship in 2010 — their second straight, fifth in 11 years, and 16th ever — they have won exactly two playoff series, running through five coaches and a host of would-be Kobe Bryant co-stars and would-be franchise building blocks. Things got so bad that the Buss family imploded with an attempted Board of Directors coup that eventually gained Jeanie Buss sole power over the franchise, which she shared with the best Laker ever, Magic Johnson.

For years, the Lakers attempted to play by rules they’d invented, rules that simply stated there were no rules that applied to the Lakers. L.A. under Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak tried and failed to add marquee free agents every summer despite getting worse and worse. They tried to develop young talent while giving Kobe Bryant 20 inefficient shots per game. The Lakers believed themselves exceptional based on a half-century of history that told them the Lakers were exceptional, and they failed.

The Lakers killed Lakers exceptionalism by misusing it.

LeBron James just brought it back to life.

Unless the Lakers are again exceptional, there is no godly reason for LeBron to sign there. There’s another, better basketball team in Los Angeles if the city is the draw, and many teams are currently better-equipped to challenge the Golden State Warriors for another championship. The Lakers are equipped to parlay young talent and additional cap space into another star player to work alongside LeBron — Kawhi Leonard remains the No. 1 option, but DeMarcus Cousins is out there as well — but the Philadelphia 76ers have a better vault to draw from and two young stars who’d be perfect complements to LeBron.

But ultimately, the Lakers are the exceptional team. The Lakers have the history that 28 NBA teams don’t have (hi Boston), the glamor that the Clippers can’t match in the same city, the location (it’s no coincidence the Warriors and Lakers are both in California), the hype. Yes, the hype: it’s real.

And it’s why Magic Johnson gets an assist here.

When I shoveled another lay of dirt on the Lakers back in January, I wrote that Magic had a certain something that his predecessors lacked. Which is obvious, of course: he’s Magic f’n Johnson! He’s half the reason the NBA was in position to make Michael Jordan a superstar in every city on Earth. Magic and his rival Larry Bird cut a direct path for LeBron to walk in. LeBron is a smart dude who knows his league history, and when Magic speaks, dudes like LeBron listen.

And Magic spoke, y’all.

Magic is one of the best personalities American sports has ever seen, and he drips with success both on and off the court. That’s the je ne sais quoi right there: charisma and a record of success that speaks for itself. It’s easy to see how he could reel in a big fish where someone like Kupchak (successful as hell himself) and Jim Buss (well ...) might struggle.

By most early indications, LeBron’s decision was primarily formed by his camp and then clinched by Magic. LeBron saw in the Lakers — the once-great, always-legendary, still-glamorous Los Angeles Lakers — a platform to finish his basketball career and build his second career in entertainment and business while raising his family. Magic sold that vision, potentially with assurances that he’d get that second star (or step down if he failed) and whatever else LeBron needed to get the Lakers back to on-court excellence.

So really, then, it’s LeBron who bought into and believed the exceptionalism of the Lakers enough to put himself in the franchise’s throne, and Magic who helped assure that the franchise was in position to accept King James’ gracious offer to take the crown. The five-year playoff drought, the embarrassing on- and off-court dramas, the slow draining of the reservoir of mystique the Lakers had built up for 60 years ... none of that could erase the history. Nothing could, probably.

So now the Lakers have their best player since Shaq, and — though he’s 33 years old and losing steam on defense — perhaps the best player in basketball history. It takes more than one superstar, as LeBron proved in Cleveland this year (and with no offense to Kevin Love). It’s up to Magic to finish the job.

Whether LeBron can add another ring to his fist is an open question. Whether he can make the Lakers exceptional again is not. He just did.