LeBron, the 2018 Building Block, Set This 2019 Table
Witnesses to a whirlwind NBA summer of superstars maneuvering to align next to fellow superstars, we should remember the bigger picture. It does evoke memories of similarly careful and well-thought-out chess moves LeBron James knows well from his career. James caught plenty of criticism for making those moves … before reaping fantastic championship rewards on more than one occasion for being so bold.
It was impossible for players around the league to miss the value in what James did by moving to Miami and returning to Cleveland to heighten his chances of success. This year, the top players showed what they learned from James in looking like a high-end summer camp where they all seemed determined to find a cool roommate to be their bunk-bed buddy.
Their understandable hopes were to compete better for the championships James has won three times.
But grain sometimes needs to be gone against, and a reminder needs to be issued now that James was willing to do it very differently last summer. He was willing to go it alone and change his life in a manner for which he felt he was ready. He had the confidence to chart his own path to Los Angeles—unclear who would be a viable first mate at a time when James was riding a ridiculous eight-year streak of NBA Finals qualifications.
To get a full season and to see the things he’s able to do, I’m excited to get a lot of that this season.Anthony Davis
One year before so many top players tried to pair up in the summer, James committed to the team and the self that he believed in.
Some might say James paid his price for that risk, because the Lakers struggled last season with injuries ultimately undermining any playoff-run comeback. Yet James’ trust in his own drawing power and the prestige of the Lakers’ franchise has paid off now with a fellow MVP candidate in Anthony Davis coming over in trade, plus a suddenly deep and experienced roster after free agency.
What James showed in his 2018 westward expansion was a pioneer spirit that Lakers fans might recognize from some of their greatest leading men: Most recently, Shaquille O’Neal embraced the jump from Orlando to the Lakers in the NBA’s groundbreaking 1996 free agency—and won it all in 2000-02. After that, Kobe Bryant wanted to prove he could be a top dog and brought the Lakers their 2009 and ’10 titles.
As player after player, especially Davis, has said upon joining the Lakers this summer, the chance to win with the buddy he calls “LJ” was the major reason to come.
But James had to come first to set this table.
“To get a full season and to see the things he’s able to do,” said Davis, citing James’ passing, shooting, defensive communication and leadership, “I’m excited to get a lot of that this season.”
Not long ago, the T-shirt company Homage was making retro shirts harking back to the old NBA JAM video game hyping two teammates on current or classic teams. For the current Lakers, the featured tandem was Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, whose fast friendship and unique personalities made it fun for Lakers fans to follow their 2017-18 rookie season together.
Ball wound up part of the trade to land Davis. (Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made sure to thank Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart for being so good that such a trade could be made, saying: “Anytime in this business you make a trade for extraordinary value, you have to give up extraordinary value.”) So, Davis is here … on a team that also has James … and the Lakers still have Kuzma, too. That point was driven home when the three of them were seen huddling at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
James was just rated the top player in the league—again—by the modern-day NBA JAM: the NBA 2K video game series, even though Davis is featured on the NBA 2K20 game cover. Both James and Davis are legit 2K players who’ve used the video game to visualize their real selves working together.
But there are mere video-game projections … and then there are real-life productions. In fact, James (27.6) and Davis (27.4) stand as the two highest-rated players in NBA history after Michael Jordan (27.9), according to Basketball Reference’s Player Efficiency Ratings dating back to 1951.
That is ridiculous even to consider.
“I can’t think of any better duo,” new Lakers forward Jared Dudley said.
I know LeBron makes everybody better.Quinn Cook
At a time when the NBA is focusing on top tandems, it shouldn’t be glossed over how two of the greatest players in modern NBA history are getting their wish to play together.
Davis came to play with James. He came because he wants to win as many championships as he can in his career, and after seven years, Davis has none.
The most natural moment of Davis’ introductory press conference came in the opening minutes when Pelinka was in full rave mode about Davis’ skillset: “What we think about Anthony Davis is this: There is no more complete basketball player in the game,” Pelinka said. “There is nothing he can’t do. He can shoot, he can make plays, he can defend 1-to-5, he can protect the rim, he can handle the ball. His dedication to his craft is unparalleled.”
As Pelinka spoke, Davis spotted James standing away from the crowd, between the retired numbers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West high on the wall, listening from under his low-brimmed cap. Davis and James made eye contact, and Davis broke into the sort of natural smile you get from joking with a buddy way more easily than anyone singing your praises. Davis gestured with his microphone for James to come over and join the party, then smiled again when he wouldn’t.
Interestingly, there hasn’t been any speculative chatter about how James might handle playing alongside a player this good. Usually it is par for the course to wonder how a star might feel or deal with surrendering some control of the team. With James, it’s not a question the way it is for ball-dominant stars elsewhere.
“I know LeBron makes everybody better,” said new Lakers guard Quinn Cook, who started the 2015-16 season with the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers anchored by James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. “He brings the best out of everybody. And I know I saw that with my team with him in Cleveland for a little bit. He made me such a better player in two months, and to have a full season with him, I can only imagine the type of player I’ll become this season.”
At the top of the main stairway at James’ I Promise School in Ohio, the oversized sign for the students is in clear black and white, all caps:
“I PROMISE … I WILL WORK HARD … I WILL NEVER GIVE UP … I WILL DREAM BIG … I WILL STAND TALL … I WILL SUCCEED … I WILL BE STRONG.”
James is not official administration with the Lakers, but he does set a tone for his fellow players. Many of the holdover players such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have now for consecutive summers voted for James in their free-agent years, understanding the terms to the new trail he has blazed.
LeBron James and Danny Green
Of course these Lakers players are not just followers. They seek the same championship out West he seeks.
In fact, new Lakers guard Danny Green already has an NBA championship via the Western Conference (and one from the Eastern Conference this year). But like Cook, Green got his first exposure to the pros with a superstar who was open to helping teammates, even fringe role players. Green played his rookie season with James on the 2009-10 Cavaliers before going to San Antonio.
"Now to compete with him, to have it come full circle, it’s crazy how things work out,” Green said.
So, during this summer that has seen such widespread NBA player movement, a tip of the cap to James.
He said a year ago that he moved to L.A. for his family and for the Lakers. Now a lot of very talented basketball players have moved, too—setting up what could be a lot of beautiful days in the neighborhood.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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