After five years of unfamiliar futility that was prolonged by disappointing draft picks, comical mismanagement, and humiliating free agent pitches that eventually convinced their front office to pay Timofey Mozgov like the preordained savior Jim Buss always knew he was, the Los Angeles Lakers finally landed the exact (only?) player who could resurrect their reputation as the wealthiest franchise in NBA history.
LeBron James will call Staples Center home for at least the next four seasons, on a team that’s current cap sheet is primarily filled with burgeoning lottery picks like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, useful rookie-scale contracts like Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, and Mo Wagner, and intriguing veterans like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and 33-year-old Luol Deng.
This is all exciting, and changes the entire league’s landscape in so many different ways. But for now, in early July, it brings more questions than answers. As things stand, the Lakers have all the names mentioned above plus Ivica Zubac on their team. Julius Randle’s cap hold is still on the books.
Before McGee’s contract is accounted for, the Lakers can still open up about $23 million—if Randle is renounced and Deng is stretched—to sign someone like DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, or J.J. Redick to a sizable one-year deal. As is, L.A.’s outside shooting isn’t ideal but it’s also not terrible, and there are enough athletic wings who can score and play make to let LeBron slide up to the five when need be—something he couldn’t do on the Cavs last season—while spending most of his minutes beside like-size players. The personnel is modern and more safe than it looks on paper, which is an incredible thing to write about a team that just signed Lance Stephenson.
LeBron’s incoming presence will be a tsunami to whatever schemes, lineup configurations, and fundamental identity the Lakers cultivated last year, but, for the time being, re-signing Caldwell-Pope lets them carry a respectable amount of continuity into next season. L.A.’s defense should be a league-average outfit, at worst, switching with more fluidity and ease than those teams in Cleveland ever could. Rebounding and rim protection may be an Achilles’ heel, but L.A.’s front office has the time and resources to figure out a solution. Even before we know exactly who else is on the team, zero organizations (except the Warriors) will want any part of them in a seven-game series.
Bigger picture, LeBron’s westward migration is a devastating blow for Dan Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and every other team in the Western Conference that suddenly has to go through LeBron, on top of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Those latter two juggernauts aren’t safe, either. Even if the Lakers don’t acquire Kawhi Leonard before the next trade deadline passes, they’ll still be able to open up at least one max slot for another All-Star at this time next year. The two names already on the tip of everybody’s tongue are Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who can (and probably will) opt out of the two-year contract he just signed, and Leonard, who can be added to L.A.’s youth movement instead of replacing them.
And even if they don’t get one of those two, the Lakers will find someone very good sooner than later. Maybe Klay Thompson is unhappy and wants to play for the same franchise as his dad, for a familiar head coach like Luke Walton? Maybe Jimmy Butler wants to explore his options as a free agent? Maybe Damian Lillard or Paul George or Joel Embiid demand a trade? The mere thought of playing in Hollywood with LeBron freaking James may motivate someone to look at his surroundings, realize you only get one career, and demand change.
Assuming the Lakers don’t foolishly agree to any long-term contracts for the rest of this summer, they will loom over the league as its predominant destination. A fabulous place to ring chase, too. Unlike his time in Cleveland, LeBron’s firmly planted himself in L.A. for the next four years, allowing fellow stars to make similar commitments. Let your imagination run wild at all that’s possible, like the first time someone told you Scorpion had 25 tracks, except the results won’t be inedible.
Of course, the NBA’s wild imbalance may have a reverse effect. What if stars on floundering non-super teams in the Western Conference want to head East, where the path to a title is infinitely less complicated? How will Anthony Davis react to his new existence in purgatory? What about Lillard, or Karl-Anthony Towns? This gauntlet’s treacherousness has no precedent.
None of this is hyperbolic. As the most powerful athlete in professional sports, LeBron’s biggest choices have consequences that are felt in unforeseeable areas. What isn’t surprising, though, is how somber the Cavaliers will look for at least another generation now that he’s gone. Despite early reports of holding onto Kevin Love and trying to stay respectable whether LeBron left or not, Cleveland may want to change course and trade him, perhaps to an asset-rich, win-now team like Philadelphia—assuming the Sixers don’t empty their war chest in a deal for Kawhi. With a top-ten protected pick owed to the Atlanta Hawks in 2019, Cleveland needs to tank right away.
But enough about them. Elsewhere, LeBron’s decision to play for the Lakers also stands as a major blow to Philly for a few key reasons: 1) They didn’t get LeBron, 2) They probably don’t want to surrender too many valuable assets for Kawhi, knowing he may want to play with LeBron in 2019-20, 3) Even if they roll their cap space over into next summer, so many other teams will be in the same boat, hunting the same players with just as much money to blow. This isn’t the End of Days for Philly, but it might’ve been their best chance to demonstrably improve from the outside.
LeBron’s ripple effects can be disastrous. They can also be cause for celebration if you’re, say, the Boston Celtics: a team built to go on a dynastic run that hasn’t defeated LeBron in eight years. They will be heavy favorites to make the Finals next season, and whichever team they face in it will show up bloody and battered. (Let’s say the Rockets somehow survive. They may have gone through LeBron and Durant.)
We’re straying too far from what really matters, though. The NBA is probably about to have another super team on its hands, in one of its most profitable markets, supported by one of its all-time most complete players. Things will never be the same, in more ways than anyone can possibly predict.