Ever since he entered the NBA as a fresh-faced phenom, the lights have shined brightly on LeBron James. He’s been nothing short of one of the sport’s greatest players, if not one of the greatest athletes in any sport. What he has done in his career is truly astounding, with eight straight NBA Finals appearances, four MVP awards and 12 All-NBA first team selections in 16 seasons among his many accomplishments. For the past 10 years, no player has unseated the King off his throne atop the NBA.
But above the accolades and statistics, LeBron is on a level of his own by his impact. The story of each NBA season is the story of LeBron. The league watched as he piloted his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to their first Finals appearance in franchise history as an aspiring superstar, then as he took his talents to South Beach and won two titles with his Miami Heat super team, and then as he came back and delivered a championship to title-starved Cleveland. He has been a constant presence in the sport’s biggest stage, the NBA Finals, and the drama surrounding his teams have captured the headlines and captivated fans.
So when LeBron James announced on July 1st his intentions to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the glamour organization of the NBA, the game’s biggest star united with the sport’s biggest stage. From Kareem to Magic to Shaq to Kobe, some of the game’s greatest players have donned the purple and gold, but LeBron could be the best one yet. He enters the City of Angels with aspirations to turn the franchise around, win rings and ascend to the status of greatest player of all-time.
James hasn’t won an MVP since his time in Miami, but that says more about the recency bias that influences the award than James’ actual performance. Because for the past decade, he’s been the league’s best player and most prominent figure. At every stop, James’ impact has been incredible. From his tremendous physical prowess to his brilliant basketball acumen to his unrivaled leadership abilities, James has defied the limits of what a basketball player can be. Every team that has added him has improved by leaps and bounds; every team that has lost him has floundered to mediocrity.
In James, Los Angeles will have a transcendent superstar who will take them from lottery regulars to immediate contenders in the stacked Western Conference. As of his signing, the Lakers’ roster is promising but young, with guards Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball returning for their second seasons and forwards Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram as significant building blocks. Even without another superstar, the supporting cast in Los Angeles is a step above what LeBron carried to the Finals last year in Cleveland and there is room for growth over the duration of James’ four year, $153 million contract.
Youth alone won’t be enough for the Lakers to challenge the Warriors and Rockets in the Western Conference. But the signing of LeBron also makes the lure of L.A. greater for some of the game’s best players, as All-NBA talents such as the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and the Pelicans’ DeMarcus Cousins could move to L.A. to form a super team. With such a young team, the Lakers have the salary cap and assets to assemble a superteam to compete with the best in the NBA. Even if the LeBron can’t reach the Finals for a whopping ninth straight year, the Lakers present an opportunity for long term success.
The impact of LeBron’s splash ripples far beyond Los Angeles. The Cavaliers are the obvious losers, as this situation represents a worst-case scenario. Gone for the foreseeable future are their championship hopes, as LeBron’s departure leaves the Cavs with just one star, Kevin Love, and not much else. Without LeBron, owner Dan Gilbert, who plans to sell the franchise soon, will see the value of his franchise decrease by hundreds of millions of dollars and possibly even be cut in half. And in Cleveland the city, the heart and soul of the town has packed his bags once more and left them to fall back into irrelevance.
Across the NBA landscape, the chase for the title became a lot more interesting. The Golden State Warriors should remain the favorite to three-peat as champions with their superstar quartet of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, while Houston, which pushed the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, is right back in the thick of title contention. If Oklahoma City and newly re-signed forward Paul George pull it together, the Thunder could make noise in May, while Utah, Denver, and Minnesota are rising in the Northwest division. Add in LeBron and the Lakers, who finished as the 11th team in the Western Conference last season, are sure to make things interesting out West next season.
LeBron’s jump shifts power even further in the West’s favor, leaving the East much weaker and up for grabs. The 76ers and Celtics would have loved to add James, but his departure opens up the door for both teams to become the Eastern Conference’s first LeBron-less representative since 2009-10. Add in the Raptors, a title hopeful that James has foiled in consecutive playoff matchups, and the majority of the Eastern Conference (Cleveland excluded) is realizing that they no longer have to wrestle with the best player in the NBA.
Make no mistake, LeBron’s move to Los Angeles was a carefully calculated decision. His addition definitely benefits the Lakers, but LA also gives LeBron what Cleveland could not. Family factored greatly into James’ decision as he owns two mansions outside the city and lives there in the summer, plus Hollywood is a more exciting stage for the game’s premier superstar than blue-collar Cleveland. Los Angeles also provides James the opportunity to go after titles, while the Cavaliers were falling apart at the seams and watched their championship window slowly close.
For the game of basketball, LeBron to LA is exciting, compelling and fitting. The backdrop of Hollywood is especially appropriate, as this narrative appears to be straight out of a movie script. Some will cast LeBron a hero, aiming to return a storied franchise to its glory days and to showcase his legendary talent, while others (like me, your friendly, neighborhood Orlando Magic fan) can’t stand to see another superstar head to the Lakers and have found a new villain to root against. Drama will ensue, battles will be fought, and confetti will fall on one deserving champion. Regardless of the ending, the King suiting up in the regal purple and gold signals that it is time, more now than ever, to get your popcorn ready.