By Nancy Armour |
The Los Angeles Lakers got the better of this deal.
By agreeing to a four-year contract, announced Sunday night, LeBron James took the biggest gamble of his career – and one not guaranteed to pay off even if the Lakers somehow manage to wrangle Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs.
The curtain on Showtime fell long ago, and this is no longer the iconic franchise of Kareem, Magic and Kobe. Sad as it is to say, the Lakers have become an also-ran, a team of middling talent that, if they had Jazz or Timberwolves on their chest, wouldn’t merit a second look.
But they’re in Los Angeles and that, apparently, is good enough for LeBron. It had better be, because as tough as it was to beat Golden State with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will be infinitely tougher with the Lakers.
That the Lakers wanted James was a given. He is the greatest player of his generation, possibly of all time, and after what he did with the Cavaliers last season, it’s not a stretch to say he could pull four guys out of the local YMCA and make the NBA Finals.
And Lord knows the Lakers need his star power.
With the exception of an odd season or two, the Lakers were at the pinnacle of the NBA from the time they moved to Los Angeles. First it was Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor ruling the West. Then it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The addition of Magic Johnson made the Lakers America’s first true celebrity team. With Pat Riley’s slicked-back hair and designer suits, Jack Nicholson grinning on the sidelines and an up-tempo offense that was different than anything anyone had ever seen, the Showtime Lakers transcended sport. They weren’t just a team, they were a cultural touchstone. Even if you didn’t know basketball – heck, even if you didn’t know sports – you knew Magic, Kareem and the Lakers.
Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson brought a different vibe, but it was no less mesmerizing. They were winning titles even as they were feuding, a story tailor-made for Hollywood if there ever was one. When the big breakup finally came, Bryant somehow managed to keep the spotlight.
But all dynasties eventually fall, and the Lakers were no different.
Hobbled by injuries, Bryant was a shadow of his former self his last few seasons before retiring in 2016. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs his last three seasons, and didn’t even win 20 games his last year. Los Angeles hasn’t cracked .500 since the 2012-13 season – when James was still in Miami, for those needing a better reference point – and it might as well be playing in a different league from Golden State, Houston and Oklahoma City.
Until Sunday night, its centerpiece was an overhyped guard whose star status had been exposed as a figment of his father’s imagination. Its celebrity came courtesy of Johnson, now the president of basketball operations.
It was, to put it in terms relatable to its locale, an aging star who had fallen to B-list status and needed something to be relevant again.
With an eye on his career after basketball, it is understandable why Los Angeles would appeal to James. Hollywood is at his front door. He can pick the brain of Johnson, whose success in the business world rivals anything he did with the Lakers.
Best of all, he can play without the burden of being anything and everything to Los Angeles, as he was in northeast Ohio.
But titles? Those will be as hard to come by as they were in Cleveland. Maybe harder, because the Lakers will have to go through Golden State, Houston or Oklahoma City just to get to the Finals.
There are already some who are reluctant to give James his full due because while he’s won three championships, he has come home empty in six other trips to the NBA Finals. Going to the Lakers will only embolden the critics because they will not have to look to record books or YouTube videos for comparison. It’ll be right there on his chest.
Short of winning three more titles, which would put him equal with Abdul-Jabbar, or returning the Lakers to the glory days of Showtime, James will always be found wanting in the measurement of Laker lore. And no matter what he does, the Lakers will never be “his” team in the way it is Abdul-Jabbar’s, Johnson’s or Bryant’s. It can’t be, not when his legacy is so intertwined with one, maybe two, other teams.
Those are worries for the future, however. The Lakers’ concern is the present and, thanks to James, they’re the biggest name in the NBA again. That’s worth every penny of the $154 million they’ll pay him.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.