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Should LeBron James join Los Angeles Lakers in free agency?

Zach Harper

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LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Has this been inevitable his entire career?

For most of his career, LeBron James and big markets have been linked together. Back in 2010, the New York Knicks were supposed to be the next home for LeBron. After playing so long in Cleveland, throwing James into a big market would find a way to increase his Q rating exponentially. Reviving the Knicks and turning them back into a powerhouse in the NBA would be legendary. Or even deciding to go player with the Chicago Bulls and bring titles back to that city in a way only Michael Jordan had done.

Had the Lakers possessed copious amounts of cap space back then, they probably would’ve been a big part of the rumor mill that summer. Mostly because back then, the Lakers still seemed to get whatever they needed in order to sustain their franchise’s excellence. The Lakers were coming off two straight titles, so they didn’t really have a need for LeBron then — if that’s ever possible. But they’ve almost always had the draw to grab the attention of the league’s biggest stars.

Great players becoming a part of the Lakers’ lore always seemed like an inevitability. This time around, the Lakers finally have the flexibility and the space to add someone like LeBron James. They just need to have the allure to still do it. LeBron in a big market is still something we haven’t experienced. And the Lakers — when they’re in title contention — feel like they are the NBA’s biggest market and money-making machine.

As we examine LeBron landing with every team, this is one of them that feels like a very real possibility. Some maybe even feel it’s inevitable.

How does LeBron James get to the Lakers?

For all of the flack Magic Johnson has received in the year-plus he has run the Lakers, this franchise finds itself in a pretty amazing cap situation. Even after the Timofey Mozgov contract in 2016, the Lakers are in really good shape. In order to bring in multiple max players, the Lakers have to renounce the free agent rights Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Channing Frye, and Isaiah Thomas. If the Lakers do that and keep the flexibility of Randle’s restricted free agency, they’ll possess $48 million in cap space this summer.

If they needed to renounce the rights to Randle, as well, they would move to roughly $60.4 million in cap space. They could even waive Thomas Bryant, Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac, and renounce the rights to Travis Wear to get themselves to $66.6 million in cap space. That would give the Lakers nearly $30 million to play with in free agency after signing LeBron James to a max deal.

It would also be worth sending out Luol Deng attached to a protected first-round pick of the future and a heavily protected first-round pick (likely to convey in the form of two second-round picks) on top of that in order to rid themselves of the $36 million he’ll make over the next two years. Either way, the Lakers are in position to make a splash this summer with LeBron and likely another max guy if they want. We just need to see how much they’re willing to sacrifice the future.

Because LeBron doesn’t seem like the type who wants to go mentor a bunch of young guys, I also think it’s reasonable to expect a scenario in which LeBron and let’s say Paul George head to the Lakers in free agency. My guess is you can expect the Lakers to then deal two of their young guys to a team for another big time veteran — giving the Lakers a Big Three.

What’s working against them?

They are young, not very good, and in the West. I do wonder how much of the Western Conference versus Eastern Conference thing matters to LeBron James. He’s a hyper intelligent person so it would be crazy to think he isn’t aware the East provides a much better path for him than going out West where the Rockets and Warriors reside. He’s also a hyper competitive person, one of the greatest players of all-time, and likely believes he’s good enough to lead any team to the NBA Finals.

Still, when it comes down to making a decision, I would imagine he at least considers how much tougher the West is than the East.

As for the team itself, the Lakers have an exciting, young core. But that team isn’t anywhere close to contending for a title. Guys like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma show a lot of promise. But there’s a huge difference between finding 35 wins in a season and needing to add 20 to that right away. Maybe LeBron is worth that 20, but that kind of improvement takes roster consistency. The Lakers don’t quite have that. LeBron would probably have to babysit more than he would like. Now, the Lakers can move those young guys for veterans he wants to play next to.

We could see a leap with the Lakers like we did with the Thunder all those years ago, especially with LeBron there to accelerate the process. But LeBron has to believe that as possible more than we do.

Why would LeBron James possibly go there?

Legacy and opportunity. LeBron has multiple companies based in Los Angeles and being around those companies would obviously provide an easier path toward helping them grow. Just the convenience of having off days in Los Angeles between road trips could help him get a lot more done in growing his empire. While he can conduct business anywhere at pretty much anytime, having that in his actual backyard instead of his digital backyard could matter to him.

As for the legacy angle of it, there is something about NBA history and finding your way into Lakers lore. Shaquille O’Neal found that out pretty easily. He was always on the verge of conquering the NBA in Orlando, but managing to do it in Los Angeles for the Lakers made it matter even more. He became larger than life more than just physically. LeBron has a chance to elevate his legacy even more.

When the Lakers’ mystique died out at the end of Kobe’s reign, it left a huge void in the NBA. Sure, other teams and markets have found their way into the conversation, but nothing rings out in the NBA world like the Lakers being relevant for more than just lottery balls. LeBron bringing that back and adding to the legacy of all-time Lakers elevates his stature in the history of the game even more. Finding a way to bring a title back to the Staples Center revives the Lakers’ place in the NBA. LeBron is fully aware just how big of a narrative that would be.

Intangibles: Restore the Lakers’ mystique. For years, it seemed like the Lakers just had an unfair advantage when it came acquiring their next star player. The Lakers just always seemed to find a way to stay relevant and their down times almost never existed. Then Dr. Jerry Buss became ill and passed away. All of a sudden, his charisma and business savvy didn’t exist in the Lakers’ corner. In an ever-changing landscape in which the internet and technology made big market appeal less necessary, the Lakers didn’t have many cards they could play. It became about basketball and their basketball was spiraling quickly.

The Lakers have failed to bring in big free agents. LaMarcus Aldridge asked for a second meeting with the Lakers during his free agency because he felt he didn’t understand their basketball direction. Bringing LeBron into the fold immediately brings back the Lakers’ mystique. That’s something that died out on Kobe’s watch — failing to re-sign Dwight Howard, which proved to be a blessing and a curse at the same time. That’s a nice feather in LeBron’s legacy cap.

Is it possible? It is absolutely possible. Some people would put the Lakers as the odds-on favorite for a landing spot, should James decide to leave Cleveland this summer. The Lakers have put themselves in position to rebuild quickly by having young players and loads of cap space. They can’t just find the star they want like Dr. Jerry Buss did in the past and secure them effortlessly. But Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are in a position of power this organization hasn’t seen in years.

Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ezequias

    June 13, 2018 at 10:14 am

    *LeBron doesn’t seem like the type who wants to go mentor a bunch of young guys*

    Thats the answer.
    LeBron is in a stage where he should and has to compete, not to start a process with those bunch of young guys.

    Joining lakers will be an obvious and tragic waste of time for his legacy.

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