Column: LeBron James gives Lakers the star power they have been lacking
LeBron is a Laker.
Four words that were once whispers of dreams can now be shouted across Los Angeles with a force that will rattle our sports landscape down to its historic core.
The King is coming.
LeBron James, the greatest active NBA player and possibly the greatest player ever, has agreed to join the Lakers in not only their most celebrated acquisition ever, but perhaps their most perfect.
The biggest star in the sports world will play for its most star-driven franchise. The leading actor in 15 years of the highest basketball drama is coming to the birthplace of Showtime.
He’s a four-time MVP who will be playing in front of fans who helped popularize the chant of “M-V-P.” He’s a 14-time All-Star who will be playing in a Staples Center where all-stars are bronzed. Sixteen championship banners, nine retired numbers of Hall of Famers, The Logo and The Captain and Magic and Shaq and Kobe and now … King James.
He fits into everything, and dramatically changes everything. A team that has not made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons now has a player who has led his teams to the NBA Finals for eight consecutive years.
An organization that has not had a true star since Kobe Bryant retired in 2015 now has one who can match him breathtaking highlight for breathtaking highlight.
A family-run business that has been struggling for relevance since the death of its patriarch Jerry Buss in 2013 will again become one of the most glamorous sports teams in the country.
James, who will leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to sign a four-year, $154-million deal here, does not immediately turn the Lakers into championship contenders. They won only 35 games last year, and, with Palmdale’s Paul George surprisingly agreeing to sign with Oklahoma City, James could be their only major addition this summer, leaving him to run a team filled with youngsters and banking on potential. As constituted, even with James, they are a team that would probably finish as a middle seed in the West and unable to challenge Golden State or Houston in the playoffs.
In fact, in the coming days, there will surely be some doubt as to James’ motivation. Many will wonder why he would come here at age 33 with no assurances he can make a serious run at improving on his three titles, which is the biggest statistic that separates him from six-time champion Michael Jordan in a debate about the greatest player ever. People will ask, did he come to Los Angeles to win more rings or to get a head start on his movie production career?
History can offer some answers. When James initially left Cleveland for the Miami Heat in his celebrated “The Decision’’ in 2010, he made certain he would be surrounded by stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, enough to win two titles. When he returned to Cleveland four years later, he helped engineer the building of another champion with, among other things, the trade for Kevin Love.
Here’s guessing the fiercely competitive James wouldn’t come to the Lakers if he didn’t believe he could do the same thing here, even if it takes a year. The Lakers are currently trying to acquire the unhappy Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs. If that doesn’t work, Leonard, who has stated his preference to play in Los Angeles, could sign with the Lakers next summer, as he will be part of an attractive potential free-agent group that could include Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler.
There is nothing in James’ resume that indicates he is ready to slow down. Last season, in fact, was the first time he played in all 82 games, and he finished with one of the great individual postseasons in history as he dramatically carried the outmanned Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, where they would eventually lose to the Golden State Warriors.
Did you watch any of his dazzling spring? His fallaway jumper at the buzzer to beat Indiana? That running floater off the glass at the buzzer to beat Toronto? Do you know he’s won five playoff games at the buzzer? And, oh yeah, how about those 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 7 in Boston?
James’ agreeing to join the Lakers is pure magic … and vintage Magic.
The big winner here, besides James and the Lakers, is the guy who made it happen. That would be Magic Johnson, Lakers president of basketball operations who was hired 14 months ago for precisely this moment.
His only job was basically to sell the franchise to a superstar, and he landed the biggest one. His main selling point was that he was Magic Johnson and, it turns out, that was one of the things that persuaded James to accept less money than the Cavaliers could have offered and sign up.
In typical dramatic Johnson fashion, he did it face-to-face with James in the first minutes of the free-agent negotiating period Saturday, holding a two- to three-hour meeting at James’ Brentwood home this weekend.
In that meeting, Johnson sold the star on the power of Magic. He persuaded James to trust him to build a championship team around him. He showed James how he could one day be like him.
James is one of the sports world’s leading voices on social and political issues, an activism that Johnson has long embraced. James is also a budding business tycoon who wants to emulate Johnson’s great success in that area.
The pitch was personal, it was passionate, and it was enough.
Last week, when it appeared the Lakers could get shut out of the free-agent derby, I asked Johnson if he felt pressure to make his first mark as a basketball executive, and he passionately responded.
“I’m Magic Johnson,” he exclaimed, later adding: “No pressure on me. I’m going to do my job.’’
That’s exactly what he did. He did his job. For legions of Angelenos who never saw him play, this is what it looked like. In landing James, Johnson showed the same boldness, the same flair, and, yes, the same coolness under pressure that helped him lead the Lakers to five championships.
He was right. He is still the same old Magic Johnson, with an assist from general manager Rob Pelinka. The signing ranks up at the top of a Lakers acquisition list featuring, among other gems, the trade for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the signing of Shaquille O’Neal, the trade for just-drafted Kobe Bryant and, yes, the drafting of Magic Johnson himself.
Also winning this moment is Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, who, throughout the worst five-year stretch in club history, has remained insistent that this team could somehow recapture its buzz and chase greatness again. She was right. Her father would be proud.
Now all that’s left is for James to show up and help the Lakers win more than 35 games. If the Lakers can’t trade their core youngsters for Leonard, James can certainly help make them be better. He respects Luke Walton, but if history is any indication, he’ll also do some of his own coaching, and that’s not all bad.
Though it’s much more attractive to imagine James playing alongside Leonard, one can also imagine the benefits of him working with a stronger Brandon Ingram, a more experienced Kyle Kuzma and maybe even a healthy Lonzo Ball. If the Lakers re-sign Julius Randle, he can provide the tough cover that James covets.
Also, imagine LeBron James staring down a shocked LaVar Ball. Here the Lakers finally have someone who won’t be afraid to shut that man up once and for all.
He is, after all, The King, a basketball figure powerful enough that he can set an entire city abuzz with four simple words.
Yeah, yeah, believe it, finally, wildly, it’s really happening.
LeBron is a Laker.
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