Love them or hate them, the Los Angeles Lakers long represented the closest thing the NBA had to a proverbial land of milk and honey. For the better part of three decades, the club often had a surplus of star players, a robust record, and the occasional championship trophy.
Then they were hit with what equates to a biblical drought for their fans: a five-season stretch without a playoff berth.
But on Sunday night, the sky opened up and watered the thirsting Laker franchise, as LeBron James, the world’s best basketball player, chose to join the Los Angeles club as a free agent, agreeing to a four-year, $154 million deal, according to Klutch Sports, the sports management agency that represents James.
James’s choice will change the NBA landscape for obvious reasons. LeBron reached eight straight NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference, and his departure from his hometown Cleveland club almost certainly figures to put the Cavaliers back in the cellar, while also giving other teams in the badly diminished East — like Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto — a clearer path to the Finals.
But the more pressing issue for the 33-year-old James is how quickly he and the young Lakers can become title contenders while Golden State essentially has a stranglehold on the league.
The answer obviously hinges on the route Los Angeles takes next: either a more patient approach that lets the talented yet unseasoned Lakers develop around James, or a more aggressive one that involves trading some of that talent for a proven star like Kawhi Leonard.
Regardless of which path the Lakers take, they will be considerably improved if LeBron can stay healthy the way he always has.
According to CARMELO, FiveThirtyEight’s NBA player projection system, the current club with James would be projected to win 52 games, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all next season.1 The projected win total would jump considerably, to nearly 60 victories with a 22 percent probability of a title, if the Lakers were to land Leonard in exchange for Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Luol Deng and a first-round pick or two. Such a deal would sting — Ingram has incredible potential, and Kuzma’s an impressive young scorer — and you can bet on the Lakers doing all they can to resist surrendering this sort of haul. Yet Leonard’s stature as a top-five talent when healthy is impossible to deny, and he would quicken any timeline for contention. (The late-Sunday-night addition of Lance Stephenson didn’t figure to help the team much, per our projections, which essentially label the ex-Pacer as a replacement-level player at this point.)
The first scenario, in which LeBron plays with the homegrown Lakers, would be a pretty far cry from 2014, when he started his second stint with Cleveland by playing alongside two other established scorers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and thrived in a wide-open offense that catered to James’s unique ability to drive and kick. The Lakers ranked near the bottom of the NBA in 3-point shooting and may need to scour the free-agent market for perimeter marksmen.
And while Los Angeles boasts a much better defense than the Cavs had last year, the Lakers were similar to Cleveland in that they lacked a true rim-protecting presence on last season’s club. More than 30 percent of Lakers’ opponents shots came from within 3 feet of the basket, tied for the third-highest rate in the NBA last season, according to Basketball-Reference. (The Lakers also agreed to terms Sunday with JaVale McGee, who isn’t the most reliable on D. But he had his moments against James in the Finals and his wingspan helps him around the rim.)
There would be at least one clear upside: After a year where James had to dominate the ball in Irving’s absence, he can now share that responsibility with second-year point guard Lonzo Ball. The two could connect quite frequently in transition, given that Ball is known for his uptempo style and long outlet passes, and James — looking to get a breather after some offensive possessions — will occasionally hang back and cherry-pick layups and dunks.
Ball figures to be a part of the core going forward, even if the Lakers do push for Leonard. The Spurs — long seen as the league’s most straitlaced team — are rumored to lack interest in Ball, likely due to some of the off-court distractions that surround him. But having Leonard would carry obvious benefits. James — who hasn’t played on a roster without a prime-age All-Star-caliber teammate since the 2009-10 season2 — wouldn’t have to shoulder nearly as much of the clutch-scoring burden. Perhaps more important: In a potential matchup with the Warriors, James wouldn’t necessarily have to defend Kevin Durant, as Leonard would be more than capable of handling that task.
By no stretch of the imagination are the Lakers a force to be reckoned with yet. But after these last five years, the roughest dry spell in franchise history, this is a welcome shift. Depending on how aggressively Magic Johnson and the team’s front office handles the trade market, they could creep into Golden State’s rear-view mirror more quickly than many suspected. Nabbing LeBron James, even at damn-near 34 years old, will speed up just about any team’s process.
— Neil Paine contributed to this story.
CORRECTION (July 2, 2018, 12:25 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that LeBron James had not been on a team without at least one other prime-age All-Star since the 2009-10 season. In 2015-16, he was the only All-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers.