Only in La La Land

Why would LeBron join the Lakers? Just ask Kareem.

One year ago, LeBron James delivered on his promise to Cleveland, capturing the city’s first professional sports championship in 52 years. As the buzzer sounded in Oracle Arena — cementing the Cavs’ unfathomable 3–1 comeback against the Golden State Warriors — LeBron was overcome with a level of emotional relief that can only be experienced after the heaviest of burdens is lifted off your back.

When being interviewed after the game, LeBron tried to explain what exactly he was feeling at the moment.

“I gave everything that I have. I put my heart and my blood and my sweat and my tears in this game and — against all odds, against all odds, I don’t know why we want to take the hardest road. I don’t know why the man above gave me the hardest road but there’s nothing the man above going to put new situations that you can’t handle,” he shared. “And I just kept the same, positive at attitude like, instead of saying why me? I was saying this is what he wanted me to do. Cleveland this is for you!”

In that moment, it was impossible to imagine there was anywhere LeBron would ever want to be. Oh, what a difference a year makes. 367 days later, LeBron isn’t just looking elsewhere, but also at one of the few places that would’ve seemed incomprehensible twelve months ago — the Los Angeles Lakers.

As recent as one month ago, the probability of this being even a possibility was close to zero, in large part due to the fact that the Lakers seemed keen on accomplishing a successful rebuild through the NBA draft. At the time, they finally looked like they were well on their way, assembling a young core of potential stars under-24 — Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, & Larry Nance — along with possessing the №2 pick in the upcoming draft. On top of that, the recent hires of Magic Johnson, as the President of basketball operations, and head coach Luke Walton, displayed a level of competence that had been lacking in LA since the end of the Kobe-era. Simultaneously, hometown superstar, Paul George, had made known his preferred destination once he becomes a free agent next summer — Los Angeles.

Everything changed three weeks ago before Game 3 of the NBA Finals. On ESPN, Jalen Rose opened the floodgates by announcing his belief that LeBron would end up in California before he retires. In twenty-one days since, an overwhelming number of the league’s most credible sources have affirmed the rumor’s legitimacy. Although LeBron hasn’t spoken on the subject, which is expected considering he has one year left in his contract, the fact that he hasn’t refuted it either, makes it seem that this has been a long time coming.

For as much attention we pay to LeBron’s once-in-a-generation basketball abilities, we rarely praise his intellectual capabilities. This isn’t to say that we’ve undervalued his overall IQ, rather, we haven’t considered the likelihood that LeBron is in fact, a genius. Before you chalk this up as a pro-LeBron party, hear me out.

While exploring the qualities that contribute to this concept in the Huffington Post, Tomas Laurinavicious claims that adaptablility is the truest mark of a genius.

“Genius can be seen as the ability to break free from the predestined, comfortable route when all signs point to the need to change. It’s the absorption of observations without precedent or plans. It’s drawing conclusions and taking a new course of action to outmaneuver the inevitable drawbacks of staying on the same course. Everyone and everything alive today is a product of past genius and thus carries the potential for genius going forward.” — Laurinavicious, Huffington Post (August 17, 2016).

Over the past seven years, LeBron has showcased this ability during free-agency. After the basketball public was shocked by “The Decision”, it was soon clear that we underestimated LeBron’s foresight. In the months following his decision to join the Heat in the summer of 2010, stories revealed that the seeds had been planted as far back as 2006. Fast forward to the summer of 2014. After a few weeks of uncertainty, LeBron shocked the world once again — announcing he was returning to Cleveland. Even so, ever since he won his first title in 2012, LeBron had hinted at a return home, yet we never believed it was actually realistic.

In both situations, LeBron left at just the right time. After flaming out prior to the NBA Finals in 2009 and 2010 — despite finishing with the league’s best record and possessing the best supporting cast in his career — LeBron saw the writing on the wall. And so, he jumped ship. Likewise, the Spurs’ destruction of the Heat in the 2014 Finals — along with the visible regression of Wade and Bosh —solidified LeBron’s belief that Miami had peaked.

On-the-surface, his current situation seems drastically different, considering the Cavs’ possess one of the best 25-and-under superstars in the NBA, in Kyrie, along with a 27 year-old All-Star and 26 year-old glorified role-player, in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, respectively. While Cleveland’s supporting cast may be superior to the Lakers — even with Paul George — if we’ve learned anything over the past seven years, it’s that LeBron is always looking for a situation that will best prolong his prime.

Although it seems counterintuitive for a 32 year-old superstar to seemingly waste crucial years of his dwindling prime in order to strap his ever-closing championship window to a team of young stars, chances are that LeBron is assessing it differently. In looking down the line — for as much as a basketball player his age can look ahead — the Lakers’ young stars may present more upside than the “win-now” Cavs, especially once you take into account that the Warriors’ aura of invincibility is an inevitable road-block regardless. And so, an even younger team of potential superstars may provide LeBron with his best chance of longevity.

Although LeBron will be 33 years-old once he is able to join the Lakers next summer, his potential teammates — George, Ingram, and Lonzo Ball — will be 28, 21, and 21 years-old, respectively. Further, Ingram will be entering his third season, while Ball is coming off of his rookie campaign. Granted, the possibility of LeBron having as good, if not a better chance at winning a title in two years, than he does heading into next season, comes down to three factors — LeBron’s ability to avoid injury, while also performing at least at 95% of his current ceiling, which is highly plausible; George making another leap; Along with Ingram and/or Ball reaching or exceeding their potential.

Even if that all happens, it’s still not good enough to beat the Warriors yet, hence why the Lakers potential success lays further down the line. If things were to go as planned — which is far from inconceivable — LeBron’s supporting cast would only get better in each subsequent year. Sure, you may be thinking — That is irrelevant if, by the time it happens, LeBron isn’t operating at near-peak altitude — and I hear you, but you’re missing the point.

With LeBron, Ingram and Ball only develop quicker, thereby increasingly diminishing LeBron’s nightly work-load, with the help of George as well. And so, consider the Lakers’ potential heading into the second year of his LA tenure; and then the third; and the fourth. Meanwhile, by LeBron’s second year in LA, the Warriors could have three-consecutive titles. While that doesn’t diminish their ability to win more, it would serve as the point in every dynasty where they are at their most vulnerable, just as the young Lakers are getting better.

Instead of being an alpha-dog, what if we bear witness to LeBron tossing the keys to George, while bringing another generation of stars up to speed on what it takes to be the GOAT. Imagine how long LeBron could play if he relinquishes control completely, so that by the age of 35, we’re seeing LeBron play 30 minutes as opposed to 38. If that’s the case, we could benefit by experiencing LeBron operate at coasting altitude, while saving his fifth-gear for the most crucial times.

Fittingly, another former-Laker, Kareem — only arguably the second-best player of all-time — established the blueprint for this approach. After joining the Lakers at 32 years-old in 1980, Kareem watched as a superstar 13 years his junior — the exact age-gap between Lonzo and Lebron, no less — slowly took the reigns. By 1983, the torch had been passed to Magic Johnson. Even so, Kareem’s diminished responsibility let him thrive for longer than he would’ve otherwise. As Magic became the Lakers’ horse, Kareem was still their go-to player in key moments, culminating in the former becoming the oldest player ever to win the NBA Finals MVP — at 37 years-old in 1985.

It could be wishful thinking, but it’s easy to imagine LeBron’s last chapter playing out this way. If any player has shown the potential to play well into their late 30s, it’s the generational superstar who has never succumbed to injury (knocking on wood). For as much as it seemed preordained for LeBron to usurp the Durant-led Warriors this year, solidifying his case as the 1B to Jordan’s 1A in the process, this previously-unexpected ending could be more rewarding.

Or, maybe I’m seeing this incorrectly, in that I’m quantifying the Lakers’ potential success by not only a championship, but one that is captured whilst LeBron is at his peak. Maybe LeBron sees the end-game and it involves a level of patience and natural struggles that he’s never experienced. If so, this could be the most fitting way for his career narrative to end.