A week has passed, the cheers bursting out across Southern California in little geysers of joy, an exclamation in the grocery store line, a fist-bump at the coffee shop, an amazed toast from the corner of the bar.
LeBron James is really going to be a Laker. He’s really coming here. There are hastily stitched “23’’ T-shirts hanging in sporting goods stores. There is a mural at Baby Blues BBQ in Venice featuring a drawing of James in a Lakers jersey reading, “The King of LA.” It’s absolutely not a dream.
But a week has passed, and now it’s time to check reality.
James is now going to be surrounded by pressure, the sort of which could be gauged this weekend by stepping outside anywhere in Southern California.
That kind of heat.
If James is indeed going to be the King of L.A., sometime in his potentially four seasons here, he must lead the Lakers to at least one championship.
It might not sound fair. It might feel like it’s asking one man to drag a franchise from zero to 60 in a basketball heartbeat. But it’s the reality of his status, his history, and his newfound control of Los Angeles’ most popular sports team. If basketball’s greatest player wants to be considered a truly great Laker, he has to guide the Lakers to championship greatness, period, end of legacy.
At least one title. That is James’ mandate. Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, they all put a ring on this town. All but one truly iconic Laker has won at least one title, and the outlier was Elgin Baylor, but he was still part of a championship because he retired nine games into the 1971-72 title season.
Nobody is expecting it to happen in James’ first season here. Not in the powerhouse West. Not with this still developing team. If they make the playoffs and win at least one round and challenge for the Western Conference finals, it’s been a success.
The Lakers having the salary cap space for James to attract another superstar here next summer changes the stakes. The expectations for at least one championship arrive as soon as next season, and will remain until he leaves.
At least one ring. It’s James’ heat, because the Lakers basketball operation is now clearly his operation. There’s no more pressure on Magic Johnson: He’s splendidly done his job, fulfilled the reason he was hired. He didn’t just sign James for his skills, but for his vision, and he’s smartly going to defer to a guy who saw his way to eight consecutive Finals and three titles.
This is not a hostile takeover. The Lakers are giving their ball to James and seeing what he can do with it. It’s an understandable move. It’s also one that puts the onus directly on him.
LeBron is not only a Laker, but, for as long as he is here, the Lakers are LeBron.
He’s going to build the team. Their three seemingly crazy acquisitions since he arrived were all approved by him. According to The Times’ Tania Ganguli, Lance Stephenson’s people even called LeBron’s people for permission to sign. An Indiana Pacers official later claimed that James phoned Stephenson personally with his approval.
Then, did you hear about Rajon Rondo’s first comments after signing Friday? Is there any doubt why he’s here?
Rondo said, “You put any team, any group of players, around LeBron James, as he has done (eight) straight times, he went to the Finals, so, my expectations are the exact same thing.”
He also said, “I think guys like LeBron … I haven’t played with a lot of guys that make plays for me so it’s going to be exciting to just get up, get a couple of easy looks, be able to push the pace in the open court and to look for one another.”
James is not only building the team, he’s also going to dictate its style of play. One would think the brick-firing Lakers would need shooters. James, however, apparently has a different idea, focusing instead on defenders and competitors. One hopes that means he will not attempt to sign his old pal Carmelo Anthony, who is being dumped by Oklahoma City. That would be a worse idea than even signing Stephenson. The Lakers do not need a declining veteran who demands minutes and shots while he does little to earn them.
James, of course, is also going to help coach the team. This should be no surprise. He’s done it everywhere he’s been. Some of these moves are actually being made without consultation of the coaching staff, which pretty much means James has already joined that staff.
So be careful when evaluating Luke Walton. He is a young coach in a difficult position. Walton might have to coach one team of veterans on one-year deals, another team of impressionable kids, and a third team that is The King. It’s a tough gig. Win or lose, they’re going to be LeBron’s Lakers.
What James is being empowered to do, incidentally, has never been done before. From the time Jerry Buss established himself as the boss, no single player has ever been able to completely run this legendary franchise.
Magic Johnson never did, even though he was blamed for the firing of then-coach Paul Westhead just 11 games into the 1981-82 season. In reality, Buss had already decided to make a change, and Johnson’s complaints simply facilitated that change. Johnson was larger than life, but he was never larger than Buss.
Shaquille O’Neal tried to run the Lakers, loudly demanded that the owner pay him, and Buss sighed and shipped him out. Kobe Bryant tried a different type of power play, loudly demanded the owner trade him, and Buss wisely refused and built two more titles around him.
Heck, for a minute, even LaVar Ball tried to run the Lakers, and that lasted until his oldest son started clanking shots and his self-involved act turned into a clown show.
No player has ever run the Lakers, but James is going to try, and while his resume gives him that right, it also raises the expectations that it will work.
Check that. It must work.