His greatest talent, more than the chase-down block and the floating fadeaway shot and the court vision and the ability to showcase on the floor like no big man before, is his sense of timing. That’s why he’s going to the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s time, you see.
LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010 because hooking up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh presented his best chance to finally win a championship. He returned to the Cavs four years later to fulfill a broken promise and give Cleveland the chance to throw the world’s happiest block party when that suffering city finally snapped its 52-year professional sports championship spell, making him a civic immortal in the process.
And now the four-time MVP and 14-time All-Star is headed to the Lakers, the tinsel franchise, and this choice is equal parts personal and professional.
This is the city where his iconic basketball career will most likely end and his post-career will begin.
This is where he can play for a man he respects, Magic Johnson, and on a team that can be built into a beast.
This is where his family enjoys living and his teenaged son, Bronny, can become engaged in the competitive Southern California prep basketball scene.
This is where LeBron, who has a film production company, can gain a firmer foothold in the entertainment business, which by all accounts is where he wants to make his next fortune.
Yes, it’s time, for LeBron and obviously the Lakers, and this sense of clockwork just might work out tremendously for both.
Their paths were careening towards a welcome collision that shook the NBA Sunday when LeBron announced he will sign a free agent deal with the Lakers. And not a short-term deal, either, as he did in Miami and throughout his second tour with the Cavs. No, LeBron is locked in for four years, and that means he’s willing to give Magic enough time to stitch together a good enough squad to make the Golden State Warriors twitchy.
He joins a bunch of green bananas that’s not quite ready for June … but wait another 15 minutes because Magic isn’t done yet. The Lakers missed out on Paul George, who announced plans to re-sign with Oklahoma City. And Chris Paul, best buds with LeBron, took the Rockets’ money and stayed put. But there’s enough salary cap flex and assets to re-arrange the furniture overnight if the Lakers choose. They’re still in the sweepstakes for disgruntled star and LA-native Kawhi Leonard and have interest in signing free agent center DeMarcus Cousins. If neither of those options are in play this year, Magic seems more than willing to keep his young team intact and wait until the summer of 2019.
Why the patience? Well, Leonard will be an unrestricted free agent then, if he doesn’t have a change of heart and signs a contract extension with San Antonio (or wherever he spends the 2018-19 season). There’s Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker ready to reach the marketplace. Also, Klay Thompson, whose father Mychal draws a Laker paycheck as a team broadcaster, hits free agency next summer, and signing him would weaken the Warriors in the process.
Anyway, who knows, maybe Kyle Kuzma or Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball (or Julius Randle if he re-signs) will by then develop into potential stars or important pieces on a contender. What’s great about the Lakers’ situation is they have options, and most are good and promising, and half of their problems are already solved because they have LeBron, a licensed one-man NBA Finals hauling crew.
It says plenty about Magic and owner Jeanie Buss that LeBron found the Lakers intriguing enough to leave Cleveland and sign up. When Buss assumed controlling interest of the franchise three years ago, she sought Magic’s counsel and then hired him to run the basketball operations. It was a solid match, these old friends, with Jeanie Buss providing the necessary resources to polish a franchise gone stale, and Magic radiating with appeal and still carrying clout among potential free agents.
He promised Buss that the necessary steps would be taken to develop stars and acquire stars, something the Lakers have done habitually and brilliantly in their history and especially under the late Jerry Buss. This is where Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal arrived and tasted success, and where Jerry West and Kobe Bryant spent their entire careers.
No question, Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson sold all that glam to LeBron. They probably all but promised him a statue outside the crowded Staples Center entrance and the chance to have a third jersey retired (after Cleveland and Miami eventually do what’s right and expected).
On Sunday, the first day of free agency, Magic was at LeBron’s home in LA, no doubt in full charming mode. Although that probably wasn’t terribly necessary. As a student of the game with an appreciation for history, LeBron already had a measure of admiration for Magic the player. But it was Magic the executive who sealed LeBron’s signature by moving mountains in a matter of mere months on the job. Magic cleared the salary cap of lead poison (with only Luol Deng’s remaining $38 million clunker left) while loading up on percolating young talent in Ingram, Kuzma, Ball and Josh Hart. The blueprint to fetch LeBron was done quickly, early and smoothly, allowing the Lakers to improve from within and beyond.
When you consider the entire enthralling package — on-hand talent and room to add another A-list player or two, and star-struck Hollywood heavyweights sitting courtside and willing to do business with the game’s best player — it just seemed the right move for LeBron at the right time.
If you wish to cast a wary eye at an all-time great who’s on the move once again, at least applaud him for taking the harder road this time. He could’ve remained in the Easy East and joined the up-and-coming Sixers or stayed in Cleveland and made a ninth consecutive run for the Finals. Instead, he’s venturing West and just down the street from the Warriors, and doing it — at the moment, anyway — without a fellow superstar riding shotgun.
And there’s risk. He brings 15 seasons of heavy wear from deep runs into June at a high level. He’ll turn 34 next season; while LeBron was brilliant at age 33, sometimes Father Time comes knocking without warning or compassion. In that sense, he’s on the clock, and the closer he creeps to the last year of that contract, the more help he’ll need to keep playing into June.
Regardless where and how far he goes yearly with the Lakers, LeBron stressed how much his family would have a major voice in his next stop. The move to Miami was mainly selfish. The return to Cleveland was more out of a sense of duty and to gain a measure of public acceptance. Here, the family weighs in. They love the lifestyle and obvious advantages of being in LA. This was a group decision after a huddle.
Plus, it’s not lost on LeBron how Magic became a corporation after retirement, thanks to powerful LA connections. LeBron wants to produce movies and documentaries and be on the forefront of a changing entertainment landscape. He can now rub the same shoulders as he begins to build an empire that’s heavily influenced by Hollywood and technology.
So this feels right, seems right for LeBron James, who’ll likely hold multiple major NBA career records and basketball achievements before he’s done. This move represents a twist to his legacy, an opportunity to align himself among the long line of Laker greats and a win-win for his family and business interests. It’s his final basketball lap which he hopes turns into a victory lap.
It’s the right place, right time and right team for yet another superstar who’s just right for the Lakers.
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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