LeBron James versus Michael Jordan will be debated ad nauseam in the weeks (and years) to come. What people don’t mention enough in that debate is the simple fact that LeBron is still writing his legacy. We’re comparing one player whose career is over to one who just led the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship at 35 years old, in Year 17 in the NBA. There’s no end in sight for LeBron. He remains the best player in the league and he’s equipped to lead the Lakers with his playmaking even as he ages. Assuming good health, there are more individual accolades in his future, more leaderboards to climb, and possibly more rings, because the Lakers could get even better.
The Lakers proved that size still matters. Which means size will be necessary to get through LeBron and his partner in chasing titles, Anthony Davis. AD is a nightmare opponent in the modern game. Most bigs, even good ones like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, show certain flaws in certain playoff series, whether it’s an inability to defend the perimeter or play a variety of defensive styles.
Davis gives the Lakers an advantage by being able to match up against a range of opponents. He can defend anyone on the perimeter and alter shots in the paint; Lakers coach Frank Vogel had him contain Damian Lillard’s pick-and-roll drives, swallow Houston’s isolations, battle with Jokic, and give Jimmy Butler problems. He can pound smaller players in the paint, catch lobs or flush putbacks over the top, and take defenders off the dribble on the perimeter. Davis is like the big man GameShark; when he’s on, it feels straight-up unfair to the opponent. And as if that weren’t enough, Davis is only 27 years old. There’s still lots of room for him to improve as a passer to make defenses pay for pressuring or doubling him.
As is, teams weren’t equipped to contain Davis in these playoffs, so how will they reload to have a better chance of neutralizing him? That’s the question everyone is asking. Will bigs get selected higher in the draft? Could trades be on the horizon, or will bigs get paid more in free agency? Just in the past week, multiple executives from different teams have texted me to say that the Warriors had better find a big in order to get by the Lakers. It’s a fair concern, but maybe nothing will change. Maybe teams will continue to emphasize small ball, signing more guards and wings to get perimeter skill and shooting on the floor. After all, teams can choose only from the pool of players available, and there really aren’t all that many big guys who check lots of boxes on both ends of the floor. That means AD could enter more series in which coaching staffs are scratching their heads as they search for ways to stop him on offense and score on him on defense.
The Lakers can add players to retool, too. They had immense success this season with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard sharing the front court with Davis. McGee and Howard deserve credit for their defensive energy, rebounding, screening, and finishing. But let’s be honest: The Lakers can do better. Neither of them can reliably shoot jumpers, creating spacing issues, and they both got shredded defensively deeper into the playoffs. Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office also saw Butler get to the paint at will when the Heat went to shooters like Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard at the 5.
The throwback, bruising center is nearing extinction, but that’s because the position has evolved to require a different skill set. Shooting has taken on a greater importance. Instead of McGee or Howard at center, imagine, say, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, or Aron Baynes. They bring comparable or better defensive ability, and far superior offense as shooters and passers. Some of them could end up being too expensive, but the Lakers will likely have the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to use to chase free agents.
There aren’t a whole lot of teams with much more to offer. Only six teams will likely have cap space this offseason: the Hawks, Knicks, Pistons, Hornets, Heat, and Suns. Only a few of them are playoff contenders, meaning the Lakers will be using the same midlevel exception (worth a projected $10 million) as their top competitors to compete for the services of ring-chasing role players.
The Lakers have their own free agents to attend to—Davis needs to be re-signed; McGee, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have player options; Howard, Markieff Morris, and other veterans are unrestricted free agents. But they should have money to play with, if they choose to. Maybe it’s just help around the edges: Another body at wing like Courtney Lee, or a veteran forward like Moe Harkless. The funny thing is that might be all the Lakers need when LeBron has shown over his career, and this season, that he can turn other teams’ castaways into Lakers contributors.
The Lakers can also add another player with their first-round draft pick. They have the 28th pick in the draft, and this class is deep with potential winning role players, especially at wing. Pelinka has had a lot of success finding solid players late in the draft—Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Isaac Bonga—or signing undrafted free agents like Alex Caruso, who started in Game 6 following a tremendous season off the bench. Kuzma is flawed and struggled in the Finals, but he undeniably has versatile scoring talent that could be appealing to another team. Second-round pick Talen Horton-Tucker showed promise in the G League and when he received opportunities in the bubble. Any of them could be keepers, or pieces for a trade.
Pelinka has more flexibility to build than LeBron’s past contenders. Even though the Lakers gave up more assets to land Davis than the Heat did to add Chris Bosh or the Cavaliers did to acquire Kevin Love, Davis was worth the bounty because he’s simply a much better player. And in their first season as a duo, they won it all. The Heat and Cavaliers also had championship expectations in their first seasons with LeBron, yet they failed in the Finals. Then they had to do everything possible to make up for a lost chance before his contract was up. There was no guarantee LeBron would stay in Miami, and even after he returned to Cleveland he kept signing one-plus-one deals that allowed him to leave whenever he wanted to. But now he’s got another season left on his contract with a player option for 2021-22. Assuming Davis is re-signed and stays healthy, LeBron will have his copilot on a team that still has assets to get better even after winning a title in their first season together.
Somehow, after nearly two decades in the league, the 2020 offseason is the best positioned LeBron has been for sustainable success in his career. LeBron has brought championship contention to any team he plays on, and it’s his migratable success that gives him such a strong case as the greatest. With the Lakers, however, he could have a home for longer than four years if the front office plays its cards right. But more competition will arise. The Warriors will come roaring back next season with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson rejoining Draymond Green (and they have the second pick in the draft). Just as LeBron has shown he’s the only player capable of beating a healthy Warriors team, the Warriors are the only team that’s shown they can defeat LeBron at full strength. They could be headed for a collision course in the playoffs. The Clippers will also reload. And young teams like the Mavericks could only get better. As strong as the Western Conference is now, the competition will only grow more fierce.
Challenges await, but LeBron is still the final boss. And that’s exactly what makes this all so exhilarating. We’ve already witnessed a player who entered the league as the most hyped high school player in sports history proceed to shatter expectations over the next 17 years by playing in 10 Finals, winning four of them with four Finals MVPs, being named to 16 All-NBA teams, and winning four league MVPs. LeBron could retire today and be considered by most people, at worst, the second-greatest player in the history of the NBA. And yet, there’s still so much more to come. Debate who’s the GOAT today if you choose to, but don’t let it distract you from the chapters of his career being written right in front of us.