LeBron James is a Laker.
Sit with that for a moment. Whisk it around like a glass of his favorite wine. Bask in the unfamiliar aroma. The tannins will smack your dormant senses like ancient, ancestral history nonetheless.
On Sunday, we witnessed an old tradition: the unification of NBA royalty.
The Lakers and LeBron, possessing the same stubborn will to cling to their grand ambitions, were destined for each other, especially after the Warriors threw them off the perch they assumed was their birthright. Of course the man who has called himself King since he was 18 years old would join forces with the franchise whose success rests on mystique — the durability of Lakers exceptionalism. Together, they’ll attempt to restore the old order, to re-establish the Lakers as the class of the NBA, and James as a champion.
LeBron could have palled up with Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston, or completed The Process with the 76ers. But, like all of his Decisions, LeBron didn’t sign with Los Angeles just to win a title. Harnessing the multiplying impact of a captivating narrative was just as important.
A 17th banner won’t match the catharsis of the home-grown, salt-of-the-earth portrait of the Cavaliers winning their first title in their 52-year history, but Los Angeles is a prestige franchise that could give LeBron a chapter in the NBA’s enduring rivalry: the Lakers vs. the Celtics. Even exempting that possibility, everything is bigger and more boisterous in Hollywood.
As he enters a city that values storytelling as much as he does, LeBron has finally mastered the art.
Eight years after The Decision, James’ agency, Klutch Sports, announced he was joining the Lakers by tweeting a 39-word press release. LeBron then posted an Instagram story thanking Northeast Ohio for four wonderful years, followed by a black-and-white picture of his I Promise school, which will target “kids who are at risk of falling behind their peers academically” and “take into account the struggles and traumas in students’ lives while providing ‘social-emotional learning’ and wraparound series for the kids and their families”, according to Theresa Cottom of the Akron Beacon Journal.
On July 30, when the school officially opens, LeBron will hold his first press conference since announcing he’s signing with the Lakers. Any questions about leaving his hometown team a second time will be answered on of a backdrop that reminds everyone just how much he has done for the place. Not that LeBron owes anyone anything, but the optics are a far cry from an hour-long ESPN special with kids from the Boys & Girls Club in the background.
Until then, it’s on us to speculate, and he can bet we will. LeBron isn’t just famous, he’s fascinating. Every new destination unveils a new layer and summons a new incarnation of him. From threading the needle and turning it over on never-before-seen jump-passes ... to patiently manipulating angles and throwing the ball where only his teammates can catch it. From getting zoned up and shooting off-balance mid-post fadeaways over Jason Kidd ... to hitting almost 37 percent of his threes. From making marginal passes to contested jump-shooters ... to taking the onus on himself to score when things break down. In the past 10 years, the league has changed many times, only to watch LeBron continually assert his dominance as the best player in the world, the brightest star in its orbit.
In Los Angeles, LeBron will (likely) find Lonzo Ball — a pure point guard and fast break machine — alongside coach Luke Walton, a Steve Kerr disciple who learned to love basketball when his dad, Bill Walton, played for Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Can Luke combine LeBron’s greatness with a team-oriented approach that minimizes the ball dominance that flattens his teammates skills? Can he convince James to trust in somebody beyond himself to create shots, to finally cede control and harness the spoils of the beautiful game?
James did in fact ink a four-year deal, his longest since signing with Miami, so he at least won’t annually lord free agency over the Lakers like he did the Cavs. Hell, maybe Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is the only person LeBron won’t entrust with his long-term security. LeBron also assured the Lakers that “this was a long term play and his decision wouldn’t be affected by a transaction they could make under a time pressure,” according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
(On the other hand, the Lakers have already signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a Klutch Sports client, to a one-year $12 million deal. LeBron’s influence in Los Angeles still extends beyond the court.)
To succeed, James and the front office will have to strike a balance. The good news for LA: Magic Johnson is uniquely suited for the task.
LeBron has always been more Magic than Michael Jordan, and not just on the court. Johnson is a media-savvy business mogul, a local leader, a beloved national icon. As a player, he wasn’t afraid to throw around his weight. Early in his third year, Johnson quarreled with coach Paul Westhead, who was already on the hot seat, and demanded a trade. The game after Westhead was fired, Lakers fans at The Forum booed Magic relentlessly.
James’ omnipresence in the social media era has usurped Johnson’s even in the heyday of Showtime, but Magic can understand the gifts and burdens of LeBron’s ambitions. At the very least, he must understand that LeBron didn’t decide to plant his flag in the city of scripts just to concede the pen to somebody else.
Two of the league’s brightest spotlights have converged, and it’s on James and Johnson to navigate their trappings and construct a team that can turn the luster of the Lakers, Los Angeles, LeBron, even LaVar Ball — a collection of Ls — into one big W.
Now this is going to be fun.