LeBron Could Be a Laker
Years ago it seemed like an impossibility, but LeBron James could end up a Los Angeles Laker in less than a year from now. In a summer full of surprising moves, it makes sense that we should continue to expect the unexpected; and a signing that puts LeBron James in a Lakers uniform is no longer out of the realm of possibility. LeBron to the Lakers is a two-fold process though, and each fold contains a number of different elements that will collectively need to sway the King. First, LeBron will need to leave Cleveland for the second time. Second, of the 29 remaining teams in the league, he'll have to choose the Lakers. Let's first look at why he would leave Cleveland.
LeBron seeks out fresh blood. While Cleveland’s core stars are relatively young; Isaiah Thomas is 28, Kevin Love is 29, Tristan Thompson is 26; the rest of the supporting rotation is not. The Cavs as a whole have the oldest roster in the league. In particular, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Kyle Korver are all 34 or older. Their age wouldn’t matter if they were on the roster just to ride the bench and provide veteran leadership, but all three get significant minutes, including in the playoffs. LeBron similarly left Miami when his supporting cast was getting older. He sought out Kyrie Irving and the young Cavaliers. But it wasn’t simply the pursuit of youth that made LeBron leave Miami, it was the feeling that Miami’s championship window was nearing its end. After beating the Spurs in 2013, Miami came back the next season as a lesser version of what it was the previous year. Dwyane Wade was evidently slower and his frequent leg injuries, whether it was in the knee or hamstring, were showing their effects on him. Even though Miami made the Finals again in 2014 and faced a Spurs team that was nearly identical to the one from the previous year, Miami got blown out in three straight games to lose the series 4-1. Miami simply looked worse all-around, even though their competition didn’t really change. This pointed to the fact that Lebron’s supporting cast wasn’t simply older and slower (and succumbing to injury), but that Miami’s best chance to win a championship was behind it. If Isaiah Thomas’s injury prevents him from being the Isaiah from last year, he will essentially inhabit the same role that the 2014 Dwyane Wade had. That is, he will be the number 2 guy on a Lebron James-led team that can’t perform at the level he used to because of injury. The Cavs will fall even further behind the Warriors and will look like they are getting further away from winning a championship. And like Miami in 2014, the Cavs will look like their championship window has closed, which may prompt LeBron to leave for a younger team.
The Cavs are in salary cap purgatory. Currently, Cleveland has the highest payroll of any NBA team at nearly $143 million. This puts them not only well above the NBA’s salary cap, which is projected to be about $99 million for 2017-2018, but also above the luxury tax limit, which is at $113 million. Should LeBron choose to opt-in with his player option next summer and stay with the Cavs, Cleveland will automatically have a payroll of $128 million because of all of their other remaining contracts. Here is where things get rather tricky: Isaiah Thomas is only set to make about $6 million this year, the final year in his contract. Next summer he will be seeking the max, and if Cleveland is the team to give him the max, their payroll will likely be north of $150 million. And this isn’t even including what they’ll have to pay to retain any of their new pickups including Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Kendrick Perkins. How much will the Cavs be willing to pay over the limit to hold together the team LeBron wants? Right now it looks like the Cavs roster next summer will have to be filled out with veteran minimums. And if that’s not enough for LeBron, the Cavs’ management and ownership may look like they are unwilling to take on whatever financial burden LeBron feels is necessary to win. This is partially what led to LeBron leaving Cleveland the first time and then leaving Miami.He and management failed to see eye-to-eye at the end of both stints, and he came back to Cleveland only after it was made clear that he and Dan Gilbert were on the same page in terms of the Cavs’ finance and roster personnel. The strain that the payroll could put on Cavs’ management could again place a riff between LeBron and the front office.
LeBron jetted for a bigger market in the past. By taking his talents to South Beach, he not only upgraded teams, he also upgraded his brand. He went from being the hometown phenom that could now play for The Land, to being the superstar that played by the beach under the beaming sun of Miami as the vibrant ornaments of Southern Florida culture sizzled around him. But now as he is inching towards the final chapter in his career, he may deem it even more necessary to be in a bigger market than Cleveland. When he left Cleveland the first time, his production company, SpringHill Entertainment, was not as prolific as it is now. But as retirement seems a lot closer now than it did in 2010, it makes sense for Lebron to sow the seeds for his business to be in prime shape for success once he does decide to move on from basketball. He’ll need to be headquartered in the right place to do that though, so a move to a bigger market may be in order for him.
Should LeBron get past the hurdle of leaving Cleveland for a second time, the Lakers should be on his horizon. Getting him to the Lakers may be a little trickier to achieve than getting him to leave Cleveland, as a bevy of things need to fall into place for LeBron to choose LA. A lot will depend on how the Lakers play this year, but if things pan out for the Lakers as I expect them to, LeBron could end up as a Laker.
As we mentioned, LeBron seeks youth in his teammates, and the Lakers are very young and on the cusp of being very good. Lonzo Ball can be a master floor general that can control an NBA offense and elevate his teammates, a characteristic that we similarly associate with LeBron. Brandon Ingram averaged 9.4 points per game last year, but after the All-Star break to the end of the season specifically he averaged 14.7 ppg. He’s slowly showing that he can be a superior scorer on the NBA level, the same way he was above his peers at Duke. Julius Randle possesses a unique skill set that few other power forwards do. His feet are quick enough that he can blow past traditional power forwards when facing up in the high-post; and if a team tries to match his speed by putting a smaller guy on him, Randle can get right to the rim by using his strength to overpower his defender. There are a lot of offensive weapons in LA, which can take some of the load off LeBron when it comes to scoring. And even if the Lakers only finish with 33 wins this upcoming year, they’ll be the second 33-win team that LeBron has signed with, as the Cavs had a rather abysmal season before he came back. For LeBron, it’s not really about the number of wins a team has the season before he gets there. The Heat won 45 games before LeBron signed, and the Cavs won 33. More important than wins was having a solid foundation in place, and being able to bring another All-Star with him (see Chris Bosh signing from Toronto, or Kevin Love coming through trade). And this leads into the next point.
The Lakers are in the running for Paul George. It’s no secret that the Lakers have their eye on Paul George (they got penalized for tampering after all), and it’s no secret that Paul George has had his eyes on the Lakers for a while. But even more important is that the Lakers have cleared up cap space to allow for two max contracts next summer. One of them will be used to lure Paul George, and if the Lakers can accomplish that they’ll prime themselves for a run at LeBron James. With Paul George at LeBron’s side, the Lakers will have multiple All-Stars and a burgeoning young core, much like what LeBron had in his return to Cleveland.
LeBron to the Lakers coincides with LeBron’s track record of seeking talented young blood to play with, as only three of the 19 players on the Lakers payroll are above 30. It also resolves frustrations that may arise from Cleveland being astronomically above the luxury tax limit, since signing both George and LeBron would only slightly put the Lakers above the limit and would allow for financial flexibility not found in Cleveland. And as for the need to be in a bigger market to allow Lebron to flourish post-retirement: well, it’s Hollywood.