LeBron James rumors are flying as we approach the start of NBA free agency, and the most persistent whispers suggest he wants to go to the Los Angeles Lakers. But on Wednesday the momentum seemed to swing towards James wanting to have another star in the building when he arrives. If that’s the case, the Lakers need to pump the brakes and seriously consider what they’re doing. After all, LeBron has been a terrible de facto general manager in the past.
News surfaced on Wednesday that suggested the Lakers were feeling pressure to land Kawhi Leonard via trade because they would risk missing out on James if they didn’t. As a result, LA re-engaged the San Antonio Spurs about a deal. As I’ve said repeatedly, that would be a monumentally stupid move.
If Kawhi Leonard wants to be in Los Angeles, the Lakers should wait, allow him to play this season and prove he’s healthy, then make an all-out push for him in free agency next summer. We have no indication Leonard is healthy or that he’ll ever be back to the player he was before. Maybe he will, but for all we know he’s damaged goods. Yes, he’d have to take a physical before a trade would be consummated, but it’s not like the Lakers would be able to put him through a full workout before then.
Here’s the problem: if James is essentially making demands that the Lakers shape their roster to accommodate his wishes, the franchise should walk away. If he truly wants to be in LA, wear the purple and gold and play under Magic Johnson, he should go and trust the organization to build him a contender. Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have built this current squad wisely and done so while saving up a ton of cap space to help it. If James wants to blow that up for another shot or two at the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers should say “thanks, but no thanks.”
James is going to slow down eventually. No one beats Father Time. While what he’s done the last few years has been remarkable, he’ll turn 34 in the middle of the 2018-19 season, which will be his 16th campaign in the league. It’s a safe bet that he has maybe two great years left. Then what? If you send multiple young players and picks away to build a contender for two years of contention, you better be guaranteed of a title. A combination of Leonard and James almost certainly doesn’t get you by the Warriors. Or the Houston Rockets. Or the Boston Celtics. Or even the Philadelphia 76ers.
This is what LeBron does, he goes to an organization, makes demands and basically takes over.
In Miami he won two titles in four years back when three-man super teams could work. And one of those titles only came thanks to a miracle shot by Ray Allen. Those Heat rosters were wildly unbalanced because of salary cap constraints and relied heavily on aging bench players. It was an awful formula and the Heat have yet to recover from how awful the roster was when James left.
During his second run in Cleveland, LeBron won a title in 2016 after being down 3-1 in the finals. But do the Cavs even get that chance if Draymond Green isn’t suspended for a key game? His team — built around Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a ton of bad contracts — never truly worked. James was the only reason the Cavs made it as far as they did regularly.
Thanks to LeBron’s influence, guys like Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Iman Shumpert were given ridiculous contracts that virtually no one would touch. Even Love’s max deal looks awful now.
The lesson? LeBron James is a great basketball player but a terrible general manager. If he wants to make a run at another title, a quick fix his way isn’t going to cut it. He’s failed repeatedly at trying to build a roster he likes. LeBron needs to focus on what he does best: playing basketball. Leave the roster building to the front office.
As an organization, the goal for the Lakers has never been to compete for a title, or hang one banner. The franchise wants dynasties and winning multiple championships. Unloading young players for a potentially-injured Leonard and an aging LeBron James doesn’t get you that. Adding a guy like James to the young core and continuing to build, might. It would allow James to be the star early, and still be a key player on a balanced team as he ages.
These days dumping young assets for older players isn’t the way to win in the NBA. You win by building. I realize Lakers fans want to go all-in and make a run at a championship, but it’s time for everyone to take a breath and learn a lesson from the Brooklyn Nets. In 2014, the Nets decided to go all-in on a title run. They made a huge deal with the Celtics to bring in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, while surrendering a ton of draft assets. How did that turn out?
Yes, Garnett, Pierce and Terry were older than James and Leonard, but the point still stands. The Lakers could also learn from their own history, where Magic Johnson became a Laker because of compensation for a big veteran free agent signing three years earlier where Gail Goodrich went to the Jazz. That deal set the franchise up for a decade of success.
What if Leonard isn’t healthy or his quad injury comes back? What if James only has two years left? Then you’ve handed the Spurs a package to rebuild with while also weakening yourself for the future.
LeBron should understand that if he wants to beat the Warriors and win another title, he’s going to have to change the way he’s been doing things. Three-man super teams surrounded by a bunch of veteran’s minimum guys is no longer a winning formula in the NBA. Teams need quality pieces throughout the lineup. The only way to do that financially is build with young, cheap players and add a star here or there. At this point he should be smart enough to understand that the Lakers waiting a year to add another piece in free agency is the smart move.
The Lakers aren’t winning a title in 2018-19 no matter who they add. Throwing it all in this year just to appease LeBron James would be an incredibly short-sighted move and the height of stupidity.
LeBron James is a great basketball player, but Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss are in charge of the Lakers. They can’t give that up just to get him to town. If he wants to be in Los Angeles, he needs to do things their way, not his.