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Will the LeBron Effect Work on Christian Wood?

The Los Angeles Lakers’ newest signee is no sure bet, but like so many other redemption projects handed to LeBron James, the best-case result could have championship-level implications

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are no small conversations about LeBron James. What begins as an honest assessment of how a 38-year-old LeBron played on a given night can quickly spin out into a discussion of his mystique as a living legend competing against players who grew up idolizing him, and plummet from there into a full-blown litigation of his legacy. Pretty much every other player in the league gets to have their All-NBA credentials judged on their actual play; LeBron’s case always expands, for better or for worse, into his impact as a leader or as a spokesperson or as a de facto GM.

And honestly? It makes sense. Every star player informs their team’s plans to some extent, but James actively drives them. He lobbies for particular moves in ways other stars won’t. He makes options that wouldn’t work for most organizations somehow feasible. The Cavs, the Heat, and now the Lakers have brought in players specifically on the grounds that LeBron would redefine their game. Think about that: For every Dwyane Wade, there’s a handful of J.R. Smiths and Lance Stephensons. For every Anthony Davis, there’s a whole roster of Chris Andersens and Larry Sanderses and Eddy Currys. Now, there’s a Christian Wood—a clearly talented and productive big who hasn’t been able to make it work with any of the seven teams he’s played for to date. Great players have always had a responsibility to find ways to make their teammates better. James, specifically, is often expected to salvage their careers.

It’s the LeBron Effect. Sometimes it works and sometimes the bottom falls out completely, but James has been such a powerful and versatile force throughout his career that his team could talk itself into all sorts of red flags, the kinds of players that other franchises have wanted to trust but couldn’t. Still, the Lakers are right to try in this instance—not because Wood is a sure bet in Los Angeles, but because like so many other redemption projects handed to LeBron, the best-case results can have championship-level implications.

The key is understanding which of those projects are worth taking a flier on at this stage in Bron’s career. There was a point in time when James, as a do-everything anomaly, could elevate extremely limited specialists into playing the best basketball of their careers—or, in some cases, all but giving them a career in the first place. That’s a tougher ask for LeBron in Year 21, which is why the Lakers really came together last season when they cleared some one-note contributors out of the rotation to make space for an improviser like Austin Reaves. LeBron, as ever, needs a fucking playmaker—not least of all because part of the bargain with James these days means reckoning with the fact that he’s likely to miss 25 games or so, during which a pure specialist can turn into dead weight. That won’t be a problem with Wood. Like D’Angelo Russell, he leaves a lot to be desired in the harsh lights of a high-stakes playoff game. Yet both have a role to play in getting the Lakers through the season and making those high-stakes playoff games a reality in the first place.

The sorts of aging stars that previously found their way onto LeBron’s teams are a bit of a doomed proposition these days, if only because LeBron isn’t quite the reality-bending athlete he used to be. There was once a reasonable gamble to be made in whatever team LeBron played for grabbing a 37-year-old Shaq, a 34-year-old Dwight Howard, or even a 32-year-old Deron Williams when they came available—expecting that James could not only wring out the best basketball they had left, but also push through whatever fit issues arose along the way. Those days ended, unceremoniously, with Carmelo Anthony and a losing Lakers season in 2021-22. LeBron is still one of the best players in the world, but the range of his influence is shrinking. He can’t turn back the clock for yesterday’s stars, and he has a hard time plugging every hole in a roster the way he has often been asked to. The first real test of the LeBron Effect, after all, was to save a Cavs team horrible enough to draft him in the first place. And he did. He eventually made players of Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones and Anderson Varejao. He made a real go of it with past-their-primes Shaq and Ben Wallace and Antawn Jamison. That was a version of LeBron that could drag around four other players and still soar to the top of the league. Today’s LeBron is wiser, more skilled, more subtle, and altogether more resourceful—but he isn’t that.

The Lakers are doing their best to adjust accordingly, flanking James and Davis with role players who can benefit from their presence without being completely reliant on it. Even the Russell Westbrook trade was a gesture in that direction. But you don’t have to make a play for a ball-dominant former MVP to get LeBron some help. You can plug in Gabe Vincent, expect the customary bump in efficiency that comes in playing alongside James, and keep it moving. You can add a wing like Taurean Prince and trust in the fact that the offense won’t self-destruct when he’s asked to put the ball on the floor.

It’s an easier balance to strike when James is still so good at helping wayward talents to course correct. LeBron has played with his share of knuckleheads and screwups, in some cases vouching for their talent himself. He’s had multiple spins now with Smith, Michael Beasley, and Dion Waiters. He’s tried to cool down hotheads and rev up the sorts of unmotivated former lottery picks who, despite all their talents, typically wash out of the league. He’s helped space cadets find their focus and loose cannons take aim. It’s baked into the Lakers’ team-building strategy at this point; L.A. didn’t trade for Rui Hachimura for him to be the same underachieving forward he always had been, but to find new clarity alongside one of the best to ever play. It worked, to such an extent that the team brought Hachimura back on a rich three-year deal.

All of which is to say, the Lakers could do worse in a spirit guide for their latest free agent addition, whose disregard for scheme and poor attention to detail have cost him real roles on winning teams and untold millions. The aim is to bring talents like Hachimura and Wood (and even Jaxson Hayes, if you’re so inclined) into the sort of intentional professional environment where they can unlock something in themselves—where James, over two decades in, doesn’t have to dominate in a way that solves for his supporting cast’s every weakness.

Wood just happens to be the perfect test case to see what LeBron has left. We know what James is still capable of on the floor, down to his dropping 40 points on a near triple-double while logging all 48 minutes in an elimination game against the Nuggets in last season’s Western Conference finals. His reach is evident in the way he still dictates matchups and manipulates the floor. We’ve even seen that he can still hold the complete attention of the basketball world, as the vaguest threat of retirement turned all eyes on him. This, however, is a test of James as a galvanizing force. As the kind of voice that ironed out priorities and brought a workable peace to the competing motivations of so many locker rooms. Christian Wood needs that LeBron—and at this point in James’s career, there’s no use in pretending that he doesn’t need Wood, too.