In the eyes of a lot of people — commentators, executives, columnists, fans, and so on — LeBron James’ decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency looks like a move borne out of family and entertainment business considerations rather than one based on trying to maximize on-court success as James moves into the latter half of his illustrious career’s second decade. But in his first public comments on the move to L.A. since signing a four-year, $154 million contract earlier this month, James offered his own basketball argument for choosing the Lakers: the man loves a challenge.
LeBron wants to get the Lakers back ‘to some place they haven’t been in quite a while’
During a whirlwind Monday headlined by the official opening his new public school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and capped by an interview with CNN in which he took President Donald Trump to task for “us[ing] sport to kind of divide us,” James also sat down with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols for a wide-ranging interview. In their chat, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player and three-time NBA champion spoke about getting used to being referred to as “Lakers forward LeBron James” — “It still sounds kinda weird. But it definitely feels good, it feels good” — and about the decision-making process that led to him becoming a Laker rather than, say, linking up with the rising young Philadelphia 76ers, joining a Houston Rockets team that was one win from the NBA Finals, or sticking with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
RN: […] You’ve made a huge change, and you’ve talked about the weight and idea of helping this historic Lakers franchise — and you looked up to big names like the Lakers, the Cowboys, the Yankees and stuff as a kid — bringing that franchise back up to championship level is an exciting goal for you. I want to know why you picked that over going to a team that’s closer to winning a championship now, because those are two different things.
LJ: I definitely thought long and hard about the possibilities of lining up alongside Ben [Simmons] and [Joel] Embiid, or lining up alongside [James] Harden and Chris [Paul]. I just felt like at this point in my career, the ultimate for me — just like when I went to Miami, everyone kind of looks at me joining a superteam, but if people look at it, I think Miami was [47-35] the year before I joined that team and you can look at the Lakers’ record — so I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to some place they haven’t been in quite a while.
Obviously, the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in a few years, but the Lakers organization and the historical franchise matches up there with all the greats — you can look at the Cowboys, and you can look at the Patriots, you can look at Manchester United, the Boston Celtics — these are historical franchises and for me to be a part of that, I think it’s a great moment for not only me but for my family and for the history of basketball in general.
Before we get too far afield: James’ trip down memory lane kind of elides the facts of the case on his signing with the Miami Heat in 2010. No, they weren’t a championship-caliber team the year before, but Pat Riley’s front office had done the roster excavation necessary to fit three near (but, crucially, not quite) maximum-salaried contracts on the books, and Dwyane Wade was already there.
So when the James-Wade-Chris Bosh trio looked for a landing spot for their long-planned team-up, they chose Miami over Chicago, New York, or any of the myriad other rumored destinations. James didn’t go to Miami to join an existing super-team, but suggesting he did so for the challenge of restoring the Heat to glory after all of four years rather than because of the presence of a confirmed winner in Riley, that recent track record of NBA championship-caliber success, the beautiful weather, the vibrant nightlife, the absence of state income tax and a slew of other factors might be a bit of convenient storytelling.
That said: this is the story James needs to tell as a counterweight to all our takes about what appears to be a bafflingly constructed Lakers team, one that some doubt will even make it into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.
LeBron’s more optimistic about this year’s Lakers than you might be
By not landing Paul George — or even a meeting with him — and sitting tight as the Spurs sent Kawhi Leonard north of the border, the Lakers have instead chosen to keep their powder dry, retaining their top young talent (forwards Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, guards Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart) while also preserving the financial flexibility to add another max-level free agent in a 2019 class that will include plenty of them. The flip side of that, though: James now stands alone as the sole bankable veteran commodity on the 2018-19 Lakers, tasked with leading a, shall we say, colorful collection of contributors to what L.A. hopes is its first postseason berth since 2013.
James has heard all the critiques of how the Lakers’ current roster seems to have been crafted by someone who prioritizes meme creation over shooting. But he told Nichols that, youth and warts aside, he likes the teammates he’ll be lining up with:
“We just got guys that love to play basketball […] At the end of the day, guys that love to play ball, and that’s what they do every single day, I love that. I love that, and I think [Rob] Pelinka and Magic [Johnson] love that as well, and that’s why they made the signings. And bringing Lance [Stephenson] and JaVale [McGee] and [Michael Beasley] and [Rajon] Rondo, they’re guys that every day that they wake up, they think about the game of basketball. And everything else is secondary. So we look forward to all the challenges. […]
Does he feel like he is sacrificing a year of his prime to play with a team full of the aforementioned signees and an untested young core, rather than staying on a squad that was more championship-ready?
“I don’t even look at it like that because I don’t feel like this is going to be one of the last years of my prime,” James said. “That’s another statistic number, and I’ve always been a part of beating the odds in life. So being around my kids a lot, it gives me even more and more time in my youth.
“So I don’t feel like this is even a rebuilding year for us. We have an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don’t think we can do, and we love the notion of it’s another rebuilding year and we don’t have enough. So that will motivate the guys that we have anyways.”
Even so, LeBron’s not expecting title contention in Year 1
There’s a bit of irony in James — inarguably one of the greatest players ever to step on a basketball court, and one who has made it clear in the past that he never considers himself an underdog and that he believes he’s still in “championship mode,” even if we’re all just living in the Warriors’ world right now — sounding the “nobody believes in us” alarm months before the season even starts. But this particular project does differ from the work LeBron undertook in Miami and in his return to Cleveland, not least of which because it’ll come in the stronger conference, and with an entrenched bully already on the block: the Golden State Warriors team that just beat James’ Cavaliers in two straight NBA Finals, that has won three of the last four championships, and that has had the league on lockdown ever since Kevin Durant decided to team up with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in the summer of 2016.
As a result, LeBron’s emphasizing that he’s not operating with any specific measuring stick for success in the season ahead:
“What my expectations are for the team, we don’t have any right now. But we’re definitely going to be better than we were the previous year,” James said. “I think there’s going to be months where we’re really good, there’s going to be months where we’re not so good, and that’s just to come from familiarity.” […]
“There’s going to be times with us being a young group playing together, there’s going to be times where it doesn’t look like what we would think. There’s going to be times where guys are going to question what’s going on. That’s just human nature understanding that. But I’ve always been a part of it. I know a lot about the ups and downs of a season, and one thing we can’t do is lose focus on what the main goal is, and the main goal is to continue to be as great as we can be every day, build championship habits, and not even saying that we’re a championship team now, but building championship habits to when we get to that point and we can fall back on some of them.”
Just like the Big Three Heat and the Kyrie/Love Cavs did in their first seasons together, these Lakers will experience growing pains in the months ahead. Unlike those rosters, though, this one doesn’t have the luxury of elite, prime complementary pieces to help alternately figure out the fit or render the issues moot through sheer talent. How James, head coach Luke Walton, the Johnson/Pelinka front office and Lakers fans manage that vital difference in a crowded West promises to be one of the most fascinating problem-solving experiments of the next NBA season, because while LeBron says he’s chosen this path for the challenge, he’s never faced this particular flavor of challenge before.
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