The latest in a long line of historic Lakers acquisitions, LeBron James announced on Sunday that he would be moving to Los Angeles to continue his career in purple and gold. The signing came as a shock, not because of his choice but because of when and how the public found out: a simple press release through his agency on the very first day of free agency. Drawing parallels to Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA in 1995, the simple message gave us the details of James’ decision, including years and dollars on his new contract. With that, it was done – the balance of power, firmly held by the Western Conference for the last two decades, has now lapped the Eastern Conference to the point that it’s not totally clear the two are even playing the same sport. After five consecutive years out of the playoffs, which coincidentally equals their count of non-playoff seasons from the 65 years prior to this recent downswing, the Lakers are back among the league’s elite, boasting the league’s best player for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal left in 2004 and giving them a chance to build a long-term contender around him.
The contract terms are important for James and it’s not the total dollars, since he was getting the max no matter what. Signing a four-year contract, even with a player option on the fourth year, is functionally a commitment to the Lakers for the rest of his career and brings with it an assurance to the Los Angeles front office that they can build a sustainably good team, even if that means that they’re not as competitive in Year One. While he obviously had tremendous success in Cleveland and Miami in his previous stops, it’s fair to note that each of the three times he left those places, he did not leave their rosters in particularly good shape. Whether that was coincidence based on those front offices doing everything they could to win in the short-term and thus sacrificing their long-term health or something that he demanded happen as a condition of his employment with the team, it seems as though James has pivoted slightly from that stance. In Lee Jenkins’ fantastic piece about the move, he writes:
“James explained that he was in no rush, even at 33, and did not have a problem being the first headliner through the door. He wants to build a contender that lasts and believes the Lakers possess the recruiters, the assets and the salary cap space to do it.”
This is a considerable change from his previous stances, in which he moved from Cleveland to Miami when they already had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was signed up to go with him in the same summer, and in which he moved back to Cleveland to play with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, for whom the Cavaliers traded the same offseason as he returned, with that deal essentially being done upon James signing up to go back home. In Los Angeles, there is no second or third star and no guarantee that one is coming this summer. Paul George opted to stay in Oklahoma City. A Kawhi Leonard trade, at this juncture, has hit a standstill. DeMarcus Cousins might not play until February. The Lakers’ other moves on Sunday indicate that they’re prepared to roll over their cap space to 2019 – all three of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee signed one-year contracts, mimicking their strategy from last season in order to give themselves as much flexibility as possible next summer. Earlier in his career, James wouldn’t have stood for this, but his priorities seem to have changed, as he now values the stability of a longer contract, even if it means that the first year in Los Angeles isn’t up to par with his previous eight in Miami and Cleveland.
The Lakers’ offseason is far from over and they have many, many different paths they can take, but their long-term future is secure and it includes the best player in the world for at least the next three seasons.