It’s been in the works for more than a year. Around the start of the 2017 NBA playoffs, executives and agents across the NBA began to increasingly discuss the possibility of LeBron James taking his talents to the Lakers after hitting free agency in 2018. One year later, it manifested into reality. LeBron James agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers, Klutch Sports announced in a press release on Sunday night.
The announcement was low-key compared to James’s past two decisions, but his plans are now bigger than ever. Los Angeles is home: LeBron owns two mansions in Brentwood and has invested in numerous businesses across the city, and it’s where Klutch Sports, the sports-management agency that represents James, conducts some of its business and where Uninterrupted, James’s sports media and entertainment company, is primarily based. Multiple sources across the industry have confirmed that James’s son, Bronny, has committed to play basketball at private-school powerhouse Sierra Canyon, which was first mentioned by Gary Payton in an interview with Black Sports Online. With his family settled and a long-term contract with his new team, James can begin his transition to his postcareer life. Movie star. Businessman. Team owner. In Los Angeles, LeBron will continue building his empire in his spare time, when he isn’t competing for championships.
The writing was on the wall for James’s exit. The Cavaliers knew even if they didn’t know. Cleveland reportedly operated this past month as though James leaving was inevitable. It only wasn’t until a Saturday morning phone call with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that their breakup became “Facebook official,” per league sources. And then, as others reported, a meeting with Magic Johnson at one of LeBron’s homes in Brentwood sealed the deal with the Lakers. Everything else was theater. Cleveland had exhausted its potential with its aging roster that lacked the flexibility to become a legitimate challenger to the Warriors. That’s partially on LeBron for hamstringing the Cleveland front office with short-term deals and leveraging the team into overpaying for J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. Nonetheless, Cleveland got the one title that was promised. But after losing two NBA Finals, trading Kyrie Irving, and undergoing a general manager change since then, the Cavaliers made clear to anyone who was paying attention who they were: a borderline playoff team that was carried to the Finals by possibly the greatest player ever.
The Lakers won only 35 games in 2017-18, but make no mistake: They already have more talent than last season’s Cavaliers and have significantly more avenues to get better in the short and long terms. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma are all talents worth keeping but could be used as assets to improve the roster overnight. The Lakers re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a fellow Klutch Sports client, to a one-year, $12 million deal and agreed with Lance Stephenson on a one-year, $4.5 million deal, and both agreements restrict their cap space this summer but allow them to retain a maximum cap slot next summer. Joining them will be NBA champion JaVale McGee, who stands to benefit as a rim-runner with the multitude of talented passers around him, much like he did with the Warriors. (Any subsequent signings the Lakers make this offseason will likely be one-year deals.)
The Lakers could still retain the rights to match an offer sheet for restricted free agent Julius Randle. The decision on Randle will be complex, however, depending on the offer sheets he receives; since a long-term deal would absorb Los Angeles’s future cap space, the team may be better off saying goodbye to the big man. L.A. is also in position to make a few less buzzworthy moves—such as stretching or trading Luol Deng—that free up more cap space. But one thing is for certain: The Lakers aren’t done.
With LeBron officially agreeing to sign with the Lakers, it’ll be fascinating to monitor what type of leverage the Spurs can create for Kawhi Leonard, who still desires to play for the Lakers, according to multiple league sources—all of whom say offers to the Spurs have been underwhelming. One executive said the proposed packages have gotten worse with each round of negotiations, while another said they’re flat-out unacceptable. That might change if the Lakers are determined to add their second star now. Multiple league sources suggest the Lakers could send a package to the Spurs featuring Ingram, multiple first-round picks, a sign-and-trade involving Randle, and possibly Josh Hart. If the Lakers play hardball, it’ll be difficult for the Spurs to create any leverage if Leonard is indeed hell-bent on joining the Lakers by any means necessary. It’s easy to cite Paul George’s decision to re-sign with the Thunder for four seasons as an optimistic result for teams (like the Celtics and Sixers) willing to roll the dice on one year of Leonard. But Kawhi isn’t George. George’s result has nothing to do with Leonard or anyone else.
The Lakers shouldn’t make the same mistake that the Knicks did in trading for Carmelo Anthony in 2011 by unloading all of their most valuable assets for Leonard. If the price is right, go for it now. But they can outright sign Leonard to a max contract next summer instead. It’s worth being patient, especially when they’ll have backup options like Klay Thompson and possibly Jimmy Butler—or still retain the assets to trade for other stars that could become available, like Anthony Davis.
Ball is the ideal point guard for James, in my opinion. He’s a lightning-quick decision-maker who doesn’t need to dominate the rock, and when it is in his possession, the ball never sticks. Ball is a smart cutter off the ball, a lob threat, and someone who defends and rebounds at a high level for his age. Lonzo’s shot must improve drastically, but he shot 37.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s from December 7 on (and after his dismal start to the season). If he continues making progress, he’ll be a worthy floor spacer alongside James, and he very well may already be the best passer that James has ever shared the court with. In the presence of LeBron, Ingram will get the easiest shots he’s ever had. He’s 6-foot-9 with limbs like Gumby, and he has a versatile offensive skill set around the rim and on the perimeter. When Ball was sidelined last season, Ingram displayed the same pick-and-roll playmaking prowess that he did as a freshman at Duke. The Cavaliers sorely needed a secondary off-the-dribble creator in the playoffs to help LeBron. The Lakers have two of them developing in Ball and Ingram.
I understand the temptation to deal now. Leonard is a franchise-changing player himself, and his presence would instantly close the gap with the Warriors. But if L.A. plays its cards perfectly and resists unloading Ingram or Ball in a deal for Leonard now, the team could end up with a core of LeBron, Kawhi, Ingram, and Ball next summer, with secondary pieces like Kyle Kuzma and veteran free agents riding the coattails of a LeBron-led team. Dealing for Leonard makes perfect sense to maximize their years with James, but not if it’s a total overpay. If the Lakers take a power-play route, they can give LeBron something he has never had in his career: a contender that’s built to last.
James has changed basketball several times over in the ways he’s reshaped free agency. Over the past few years, he’s done so by signing short-term contracts that enabled him to retain year-to-year control over his destiny, and we’ve seen the influence in the decision-making of a number of stars since. LeBron’s move to the West tilts the NBA landscape like a seesaw. The Eastern Conference has been unchained. The Celtics and Sixers will have an easier path to the NBA Finals for years to come; Giannis Antetokounmpo could lead the Bucks to the promised land; the Raptors (and Dwane Casey), meanwhile, are thinking his decision came one year too late. And now the Western Conference is more loaded than ever. The cloud James hung over the Eastern Conference this decade will now be felt on every team in the West. Teams on the playoff bubble like the Nuggets, Timberwolves, and Clippers have to be sulking, and suddenly the Rockets, the only worthy opponent the Warriors faced last season, have company.
But the Warriors are still gatekeepers of the West—and the league as a whole. They should be considered favorites even if the Lakers land Leonard. This reality has fans wondering why James would go West when the Sixers presented a better team and an easier Finals path. Aside from the fact this decision has to do with more than just basketball, it’s worth considering that James has taken the opposite path of Kevin Durant, who took an easy route in signing with a 73-win team that nearly beat the Cavaliers in 2016.
James is going to a young, raw roster that hasn’t made the playoffs for five seasons. If James brings the Lakers back and starts a new era of glory days in Los Angeles, it’s another notch in his column for the GOAT argument. If LeBron wins a title or titles in Los Angeles, it’d mean that his team toppled the so-called inevitable Warriors dynasty in the most loaded conference in league history and then took down a formidable opponent in the East: Likely either the young, hungry Sixers or a Celtics team helmed by his former teammate in Kyrie Irving. The first major arc of LeBron’s career was defined by his losses to the Boston Celtics; over the years he’s reversed his fate against the storied franchise completely. Now, he has the chance to end his career as part of a greater chapter of the league’s most historic rivalry.
The Lakers ultimately provide LeBron with a world of upside: the chance to win another title with his third team in a new conference in a new era while guiding the most popular basketball franchise in the world back to the top of the league. L.A.’s implications on LeBron’s legacy far exceeds anything else he would have achieved in any other city. LeBron won’t catch the ghost he’s chasing without taking a risk. This is it.