They’ve got matching megawatt smiles.
The greatest playmaker of all time and the greatest playmaker of his era (who is also, perhaps, the greatest all-around player of all time).
The pairing of executive, entrepreneur and mogul Magic Johnson with the next generation version of himself in LeBron James is a match made in basketball and Hollywood heaven.
Having these stars align -- two of the biggest names in the history of the sport on the biggest stage, together -- is a game-changer that needs an original script.
Their partnership, for at least the next three years with a player option for a fourth, sent a jolt through the basketball world this summer and has served to energize a hungry Los Angeles Lakers’ fan base that is starving for a return to relevance. If this takes and the Lakers’ past and present mesh the way some think it can, the Lakers’ future is as bright as it’s been since Kobe Bryant’s title-winning zenith at the end of the past decade.
* Smith: Unique challenges ahead for James
These LeBron-led Lakers are not operating with the same championship-or-bust expectations Bryant's teams did before injuries sacked him late in his career. The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty didn’t exist then, when Kobe’s Lakers were one of several powerhouse Western Conference teams taking turns representing the conference in The Finals.
Johnson taking long view on team
Making the playoffs for these current Lakers will be a net positive, no matter how oversized the expectations might be elsewhere. (The Vegas vibe that they are title favorites is more than a bit premature given that they have missed the playoff five straight years, which equals the total from the franchise’s first 65 seasons.)
Both Johnson and James have been extremely shrewd in sidestepping any specific expectations for a team built on the fly after LeBron’s decision to head west.
Magic’s first public words after LeBron made his decision cautioned against an overnight turnaround.
“I think the one thing that we have to, and the fans have to, be patient about is the chemistry on the court, because we’re putting together basically all these guys will be new to each other, right?”Johnson said on a conference call. “It’s probably going to take us at least a month or two, probably closer to two months, to really understand how to play with each other and how to read each other, all those things.
“We saw that LeBron and Miami struggled for the first two months, and then they finally got it together and they were a championship-caliber team. I’m sure when he went back to Cleveland in (2014), they struggled until they got to know each other and then they were a championship-caliber team. And it will be no different here. We’ll struggle to understand how to play with each other, how everybody likes the ball and those types of things, but eventually we’ll get it together and I feel we’ll be one of the best teams in the West.”
Whether the Lakers' roster mix is here to preserve the long-term plan of chasing more stars next summer or simply adequate cover for a franchise that boasts tantalizing-yet-unproven young talent and a curious mix of veterans is anyone’s guess.
But the push back then, and even more so now, makes perfect sense. An offseason, training camp and a few preseason games is hardly enough time to get comfortable with one another. And while youngsters Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are talented, each remains very much a work in progress.
That said, if things go remarkably well and Lakers coach Luke Walton can find a way to make these seemingly mismatched pieces fit, the Lakers could shock the system in the West. The true power in the West stretches in a straight line from Oakland to Houston. Everything outside of the Warriors and Rockets is up for grabs.
But the Warriors understand the power of LeBron better than any other team in the league outside of Cleveland and Miami, having faced off against his Cavaliers in each of the past four Finals. Thoughts of LeBron and the Cavs rallying from a 3-1 Finals deficit in 2016 still stings in Oakland, as it is the lone blemish in Golden State's dynasty.
"Well, the times we've seen him he's always been at the top of the East during The Finals," Warriors forward Klay Thompson told reporters before Wednesday's game in Las Vegas. "And those games are always intense. I expect him to greatly improve the Lakers and they've obviously got a bunch of guys who are proven now. So I just expect it to be intense.
"Any time you play against arguably the best player in the world, no matter what sport, you want to measure yourself against him so you play as hard as you can. That's why guys like Steph [Curry], KD [Kevin Durant], Kobe, LeBron, James Harden, any [top] guys face their opponent's best game every night, so it will be no different when we play the Lakers.”
No guarantees, even with LeBron
But what if things don’t go as planned?
As easy as it is to just assume that LeBron’s influence will elevate the Lakers the same way it has every other team he’s been on, this bunch is a different monster.
LeBron joined forces with two other All-Stars in his previous moves: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.
He’ll have no such support with the Lakers.
Magic and LeBron have both heaped praise upon veteran additions Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, citing their high basketball IQs and elite-level competitiveness as qualities that were critical for the culture change the Lakers seek. The optics say otherwise, as each of them is on a one-year contract that equates to a trial run that can be quickly abandoned if the chemistry goes awry.
And none of them provide the outside shooting and floor spacing that has worked so well surrounding LeBron in the past. All of them come with high-risk levels, given their collective histories as peculiar fits elsewhere.
“We have no concerns,”Magic said of the Lakers’eclectic bunch of signees. “And we love that they are all different individuals and bring something different to the table. We needed some toughness. We needed some grittiness. We needed somebody to come and be upset that somebody had a defense lapse.
“We love everything that everybody brings to the table. And we’ve been seeing it out here every single day. So some guys had different things happen in their past. So what. Rondo is still a champion. And you saw what he did for New Orleans last season. So we’re happy to have him. We don’t care about what happened in your past. We only care about what happens when you put on that purple and gold. They know what they need to do and how to act as a professional. And we don’t want nobody to change.
"I want Lance to shake it up because that’s who he is. Michael Beasley come on, do your thing. But we’re not concerned. If I was concerned we wouldn't have signed none of them. I’m excited to have them, each and every one of them, trust me.”
Magic, as he often has over the years, and with good reason, is trusting his own instincts.
He’s betting on himself. He’s betting on the Lakers’brand, and what that’s meant to the league for decades. He’s relying on the studying, and last season’s playoffs in particular, that he and general manager Rob Pelinka did before they fleshed out the roster.
But most of all he’s betting on LeBron, the player he loves to refer to as “the greatest player in the world,”and the change he can bring on and off the court.
He’s betting on their shared vision of what the Lakers can be, a vision that was crystallized in their conversation in the opening stages of free agency in the only formal meeting LeBron took with any executive from a team wishing to pursue him.
They are convinced. They believe all of the ingredients are there.
The only thing needed now is a classic Hollywood ending.
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