Rumors have the elite one heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s his own words that will make the call
By Arnie Leshin
The facts are clear, LeBron James has successfully turned the high stakes drama of free agency into his own reality show.
He is the NBA’s best player, and probably the best on the globe. He is a most captivating presence, and in the NBA he is also one of its savviest power breakers who has developed a summer ritual of holding the rest of the league and entire metropolitan areas in a state of expectancy as he weighs his options every July.
But don’t make much of the official beginning of June 30th 10:01 p.m. mountain time. James will probably take his time. The word is that he’s going here, he’s going there, but those are rumors, not his words.
As he did when he first preferred to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and then in 2010 joined Dwane Wade and Chris Bosch with the Miami Heat to cart off two NBA championships.
This time, after returning to his hometown team only 30 miles from his home in Akron and winning one title, rather than exercise his 35.6 million option with the Cavs, he’s made himself available again. He can resign with Cleveland, but he also has a host of suitors headlined by the Los Angeles Lakers.
But let’s point out that basketball is different from other team sports.
Let’s take baseball, for instance. The Los Angeles Angels can have Mike Trout, regarded as the best player in baseball, and still be thoroughly mediocre because he gets only four or five at-bats a game.
Now an NFL team can sign a star quarterback and still fall short of making the playoffs because he cannot throw the ball to himself, and he won’t be on the field to play defense.
In soccer, the elite player on a team can take the ball from goal to goal and not score. But James can bring the basketball up the court and score quickly.
A team with the 6-foot-9 superstar is an instant title contender. But a team without James, well you better have a collection of all-stars already on the roster.
When free-agent maneuvers involve the top tier of NBA players, those players’ decisions can have an outsize impact on individual teams, the league more broadly and even entire cities.
Cleveland, which he led the way to one championship in four tries against the Golden State Warriors, is uniquely familiar with both sides of the equation. He spent his first seven seasons there and engineered it into the playoffs his final five seasons.
Then there was the first summer for James as a free-agent, the first time he was capable of holding sway over the league as a free agent, and it quickly became clear just how much power he wielded. That was upon signing with Miami and leading theway to championship time.
Without him, the Cavaliers were left in ruins, a perennial resident of the draft lottery as one of the worst teams in the league. But when James returned to Cleveland in 2014, there became four-straight trips to the finals, including the franchise’s first and only championship in 2016.
But while James hung around with All-Star guard Kylie Irving to form one of the league’s most fearsome dynamic duos, Irving asked for a trade after last season, in part so he could escape James’ shadow, and he was dealt to the Boston Celtics.
In his absence, the Cavs labored last season, and without James, they might have finished in last place. He played some of his finest basketball at the age
He was a one-man show after Cleveland made some questionable trades. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 9.1 assists as well as shooting 54.2 percent from the field. Plus he played in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career.
But when the Cavaliers had to shuttle new personnel in and out of the lineup, experiments that often fell flat. This resulted in a hodgepodge campaign that became the most challenging in his career for James. Still, he again got Cleveland into the NBA finals, which might have been one of his most miraculous feats to date.
Still, he was already mulling free agency before the series that the Warriors swept.
So now every general manager and every team president and every coaching staff is trying to figure out how they can make up the right matchups to compete for a championship.
And even with All-Star Kevin Durant among the free agents and the Lakers trying to make a deal with the San Antonio Spurs involving another All-Star in Kawii Leonard, James is still the main target.
He is no doubt the best to lead a franchise, and that’s what’s on Lakers’ general manager Magic Johnson’s main agenda in his 2-year contract. If he can sign James and one or two other key players, he might just bring back the Lakers’ magic that he manufactured.
Other teams in quest of acquiring James are the Los Angeles Clippers under former Lakers’ Hall of Famer Jerry West running the front office, maybe even the challenging Celtics who lost to Cleveland in the East finals, and perhaps even the Cavaliers, but that’s a long shot.
That’s how important James is. He is the best player to turn a franchise around, especially the floundering Lakers who have seen better seasons.
Hall of Famer Johnson is very popular, a big-name still in the game, and that’s why James is looking in that direction.
As for Durant joining him, well he grew up in Los Angeles, has always said he loves the area, and would make Jack Nicholson extremely happy at his courtside seat.
And now its free-agent time that is unlike the other sports because of players like LeBron James. And if he was eligible to compete on a college team, it would have been the Division I University of Akron, and that’s a fact.