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Monday, July 02, 2018

LeBron James Spurns Cavaliers to Sign With Lakers

LeBron James may indeed keep his promise to finish his career in Cleveland but if that is the case he will be taking at least a three year detour to the West Coast; James ended months of speculation by signing a three year deal (with a player option for a fourth year) with the L.A. Lakers. The Lakers had long been considered one of James' top prospective destinations--if not the top one--so the move itself is not surprising but what is a bit surprising is that James made a commitment of at least three years, the kind of commitment that he refused to make during his second tenure with the Cavaliers.

By refusing to ever fully commit to the Cavaliers, James limited the franchise's ability to build the best possible roster around him. Despite that, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert assembled the highest paid team in NBA history, so James can never honestly say that the Cavaliers franchise failed him in any way, nor can James blame the franchise for not surrounding him with enough talent to win championships; Gilbert gave James the coach, the players and the support staff that James wanted.

James kept his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland and he led the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals appearances--but the way that James conducted his business hindered the Cavaliers from possibly being even more successful (no star was going to sign with Cleveland unless James fully committed, and indeed Kyrie Irving wanted out in no small part because he sensed that James would leave). James' second run in Cleveland was successful overall but it could have been more successful and it also could have been done in a way that did not relegate the Cavaliers to luxury tax purgatory for an extended time with little roster flexibility.

No reasonable person questions James' right to choose where to work after he became a free agent but it would have been nice to see James commit to his home town, finish his career in Cleveland and truly partner with the franchise to help the Cavaliers be a contender for the next several years as opposed to running to what James presumes to be greener and/or glitzier pastures.

Focusing on the future, are the Lakers contenders now? The Lakers went 35-57 last year. Historically, an MVP caliber player is typically worth at least 20 regular season victories, so it is reasonable to expect the Lakers to win at least 55 games next season. In most seasons, a 55 win team would be considered to be at least a borderline championship contender but that is not necessarily the reality in today's NBA. The Golden State Warriors have just won three titles in four years--each title coming at the expense of James' Cavaliers--and the Lakers are not better than the Warriors, nor is it likely that the Lakers can realistically do anything in the short term to seriously challenge the Warriors. The Lakers are also not better than the Houston Rockets. It is questionable whether the Lakers are better than the Utah Jazz. If the Spurs keep Kawhi Leonard and Leonard is healthy, the Lakers are probably not better than the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a flawed team that lacks depth but before Andre Roberson went down with an injury last season their starting lineup was one of the most effective in the league and the Thunder would at least be competitive with the Lakers as the Lakers are currently constituted. The Lakers may be better than every team in the Eastern Conference except the Boston Celtics.

The reality is that--despite the current media propensity of first takes and hot takes and all kinds of other "takes" that lack perspective, context or any kind of informed viewpoint--it is not possible to accurately assess the Lakers' chances until (1) we know what the rosters of the other teams will look like on opening day and (2) we know what the Lakers roster will look like. It is an understatement to say that LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas did not mesh well during their brief time together in Cleveland last season, so Thomas--who the Cavaliers dealt to the Lakers just a few months ago--will almost certainly leave L.A. The rest of the Lakers' roster consists mainly of young players who have yet to establish themselves as consistent regular season performers, much less as proven playoff performers. The Lakers ranked second in rebounding, seventh in assists and 11th in scoring last season but they were just 25th in points allowed, though they did finish a solid 10th in defensive field goal percentage.

Right now, assuming that Thomas leaves the Lakers have no other recent All-Stars--or stars of any kind, for that matter--to pair with James. Considering that James went to ready-made teams with at least two All-Stars during both of his previous free agency decisions, it makes sense to speculate that James knows or is reasonably certain that at least one other top level player is about to join him in L.A. Such a move would obviously improve the Lakers' prospects this season.

Even if that scenario does not pan out, James' willingness to commit for three years will enable the Lakers to patiently assemble a complementary roster around him, a luxury that James never provided to the home town team that he supposedly loves so much.

One other factor to consider is Father Time. The cliche states, "Father Time is undefeated" and--even though the 33 year old, 15 season veteran James had arguably his finest individual campaign last year--James will not forever be immune to the effects of Father Time. Even the greatest players tend to slow down--sometimes fairly immediately and drastically--after the age of 33 and/or past their 15th season. James' longer than usual contract give the Lakers time to build a team around him but if that process takes two or three years what kind of player will James be by that time?

The breathless question that will be debated non-stop for not just the next three or four years but for decades is, "How does this affect LeBron James' legacy?" Shaquille O'Neal, repeating something that was said to him during the latter stages of his career, recently noted that James' book is already written for the most part; James can add some pages but it is unlikely that he can rewrite the main story. That story is that James is one of the greatest players ever, a premier scorer who is also a gifted passer and a versatile defender (when so inclined). James has won three championships but he has also lost in the NBA Finals six times and he has demonstrably quit in more than one playoff series. The highs have been tremendous but the lows are significant enough that I could never rank James ahead of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, his two most recent predecessors as the best wing player in the game. If James leads the Lakers to a championship that would be impressive, but it would still leave him one ring behind Bryant and two rings behind Jordan--and those players do not have some of the skill set and mentality drawbacks/deficiencies that James has shown during his career.

One thing that is almost certain is that James' personal streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances will not be extended to nine. If James never leads the Lakers to the NBA Finals, some of his critics may bring up the point that James spent most of his career feasting on a relatively weak Eastern Conference and that he may have had much less team success had he played in the West for most of his career. James can shoot down that theory to some extent by leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals at some point during his tenure in L.A. but even if he does not do so his supporters could argue that he did not arrive out West until he was past his prime.

This next--and likely final--chapter of James' NBA career will no doubt be fascinating to watch. I have often said that James perplexes me in ways that no other great player ever has and that will probably continue to be the case as he adds the final words to his storybook rise from high school phenom to all-time great.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

8 comments

8 Comments:

At Monday, July 02, 2018 1:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I disagree that Cleveland couldn't/shouldn't have put a better team around Lebron. Yes, Lebron had a major (and unhelpful) voice in personnel moves, but is the responsibility of the front office to build the team, know when to ignore player input ("Ship his ass out," for example), and figure out how to manage even Lebron-sized personalities.

In four years, Cleveland never put out a lineup with five plus defenders in it. They never had a viable bench initiator or scorer. They never had a single All-Defensive caliber defender besides Lebron, or even a "true" D-and-3 wing in the Ariza/PJ Tucker vein (though JR could occasionally do an impression of one on nights where he had his head on straight). They struggled mightily to come up with a lineup that could survive even five minutes with Lebron on the bench, even when they had Irving.

It is fair to trash Lebron for being a bad "GM" but I do not think that factors in to how good/bad of a player he is.

As for the Lakers, it feels like they're not done yet. I would be surprised if we don't see Kawhi, Boogie, or a third, unheralded dark-horse star (Anthony Davis just bought a house in LA...) join the team within a year. Until we figure out who it's going to be, it's difficult to prognosticate the Lakers' future.

As for Lebron's aging, while it's true we have no precedent for a player of his physicality, probably the closest thing to his build/durability was Karl Malone (though of course Lebron is much faster). Malone remained a star, if not an MVP candidate, through his 18th season (though it is worth noting Malone was a bit older by then owing to having played in college). I suspect Lebron has at least 2, maybe 3 more "elite" years in him, then probably another 2-3 years as a still-good-no-longer-dominant 20 ppg one-way scorer if he wants them.

 
At Monday, July 02, 2018 3:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assuming that Lonzo Ball stays in town, will Lebron allow for his development as primary ballhandler? Or will Lebron's ball-centric ways suppress Ball in much the same way that Lebron stymied Kyrie Irving's development as a point guard? James' point-forward pretensions, which all but dismissed what were supposed to be Irving's primary ballhandling duties as point guard, ultimately ran Irving out of town. But while Kyrie was in Cleveland, this was not so debilitating to the team cause because Kyrie was a great scorer, and so Kyrie could play the two-guard. Understandably, however, Kyrie wanted to be the POINT GUARD and not a point guard with secondary ballhandling duties indeference to the point-forward-in-chief. To Kyrie's credit, he stomached that undeserved secondary role (as good a ballhandler as Lebron is, he's no Kyrie) as 1B to Lebron's 1A in that 2016 championship season. But Kyrie's a great scorer. Lonzo can do no other but play the pure point guard, partly because he can't shoot, sort of like young Jason Kidd. Again, assuming Ball stays put, can Lebron stop his ballhogging ways (ballhogging is not just about scoring) and delegate to Ball, allow him to be ballhandler in chief?

 
At Tuesday, July 03, 2018 9:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

It is evident that James was only willing to come back to Cleveland if he could run the franchise. Riley would not let him do that in Miami but Gilbert was willing to do it in Cleveland. It was a Faustian bargain for Gilbert but it did result in one championship, four Finals appearances and an increase in his franchise's value (which may or may not be sustainable now that James has left).

I agree that James' GM abilities or lack thereof should not factor into evaluating his skill set as a player.

My point is that James' many media sycophants say things like "James could not win in Cleveland with that garbage supporting cast" and "James' greatest accomplishment is carrying THAT team as far as he did." James' legacy is inextricably linked to how one evaluates his supporting cast. In that sense, it is significant to note (1) he chose that supporting cast, (2) great players (Bosh and Irving, to cite two) have made it clear that it is a major adjustment to play with James and (3) James' supporting cast is not as bad as James' defenders suggest. James did not singlehandedly carry the Cavs anywhere. He has consistently had a lot of talent around him and he has had talent around him that he--possessor of a great basketball IQ by universal acclaim--chose.

If James had committed to Cleveland for four years (instead of signing shorter deals) and if he had been easier to play with then the Cavs could have built their roster differently. All of these things reflect on James' mentality as a player/competitor and THAT is where he falls short when being compared to many other Pantheon members.

Speaking of James' mentality/excuse making, I should note (tongue half in cheek) that I am still waiting to hear whether or not James passes his physical with the Lakers, considering that it is barely a month since he suffered an apparently serious, if not debilitating, hand injury. Did James have surgery to correct the issue? Will his hand be healthy in time for the start of the season? The injury was worth mentioning in great detail during the game four post-game press conference, so I assume that the Lakers must have done significant due diligence before signing him for well over $100 million.

 
At Tuesday, July 03, 2018 9:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I am not sure what Ball's peak capabilities are/will prove to be, so he may not be the best example to prove your point (I would sign James even if I had to trade a dissatisfied Ball) but I agree with your larger point that James' insistence on monopolizing the ball can be detrimental and did contribute to the Cavs being forced to deal Irving.

 
At Wednesday, July 04, 2018 9:53:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

rumor is Kawhi is going to join James in LA... whether it becomes true or not remains to be seen, but then I wonder what could happen if James chose to join Spurs instead... feels like it would be the end of Warriors rule and proper finish to James career and .... he could finally please you (for the lack of better word) with 2 or 3 more championships...

...but as it cureently is I seriously question his will to win it all. He doesn't seem to care all that much, being showman and attention grabber the most.

 
At Wednesday, July 04, 2018 11:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, James' casts are much better than you and most the nba world think. If James is truly as great as most make him it out to be, he should've won at least one title during the 09 and 10 seasons, when CLE was the best regular season team each time and failed to even make the Finals once during that timespan. James should've won in 2011 for sure.

James has been very fortunate even to win one title. A non-call on KD at the end of game 2 in the 2012 Finals that should've been called very well could've led to an OKC win, allowing them to go up 2-0, which would've changed the dynamics of that series dramatically. Then, SA was one boxout from victory in 2013. GS blew it in 2016 more than CLE taking it. As I often say, James or anyone can't really make excuses for James when he isn't even the best player in the Finals, which has been the case in each of his 6 Finals losses.

Also, even though Ball stunk shooting, he had a very solid rookie campaign, and is still very young. He's tall, a good ball-handler, good passes, and decent defensively already. He can still score ok for a PG, too. His shot will most assuredly improve a lot over his career, which that alone should lead to him scoring around 15ppg at least on average, if not higher.

 
At Thursday, July 05, 2018 6:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

What would be most "pleasing" about James is if he (1) stopped quitting in big games/series (a recurring theme in his career), (2) made a long enough commitment to Cleveland that the Cavaliers could have built around him long term instead of year to year and (3) stopped making excuses (such as his mysterious hand injury that seems to have healed just as mysteriously).

 
At Friday, July 06, 2018 9:24:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I am actually looking forward to this new phase in James' career as a Los Angeles Lakers. His presence will force the team to speed up their timetable, but given the recent signings so far, I am surprised that they're going with scorers in Lance Stephenson and primary ball-handlers in Rajon Rondo, as opposed to the Cavaliers' strategy of surrounding James with spot-up shooters to space the floor. But they still have young legs in Kuzma and Ball and Ingram to keep things interesting.

Logically we should wait until training camp (and David's season previews!) before passing judgment on the Lakers' prognosis. But logic and the NBA has never mixed successfully except only in retrospect.

 

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