The Los Angeles Lakers looking like a lock to sign LeBron James in free agency is great news for the franchise, but if the team is going to commit, they need to go all-in and go hard after Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, or other established stars too.
The Great Mambino and The CDP discuss why, and other concerns that could come with signing James in their latest Silver Screen and Roll devil’s advocate debate.
CDP: In what seems to be an annual tradition, Lakerland is salivating over the latest crop of potential max free agents, hoping that the allure of the purple and gold and their copious cap space can attract another franchise cornerstone.
After whiffing the last few years, this time could be different, with the Laker youth movement showing real dividends and LeBron James looking to leave a decaying situation in Cleveland. As of press time, Vegas has the Lakers as the odds-on favorite to sign LBJ this summer. While turning away the best player in the world would seem like an act of lunacy, there are legitimate reasons to have reservations about signing a 33-year-old with the kind of miles LeBron has. Blake, when it comes to the prospect of signing LeBron, do you have any concerns about his fit with the team?
MAMBINO: My biggest concern is his age. Yes, I know this could be a somewhat outrageous concern given the fact that this man just averaged nearly a triple-double throughout the just-completed playoffs, but the fact is that he’s 34 years old with more miles on him than any other player his age ever.
LeBron may be the most freak athlete we’ve seen since Wilt Chamberlain, but the fact remains that his window as one of the most elite players in the game is limited to 3-4 years, at best. This accelerates the Lakers timeline in a way that doesn’t necessarily mesh with the projected growth of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
Will Ingram be an All-Star forward next year? Will Lonzo make an All-NBA team in two? I can’t say that any of those outcomes are close to a certainty. As this recently completed Finals shows, LeBron needs other players that are ready to carry the load. Are these Baby Lakers ready for that? Not quite yet.
Moreover, let’s say LeBron does come to So Cal. As an extremely ball dominant forward with a high usage rate, I don’t see how he meshes on the court with other ball-dominant players such as Ingram and Ball. Yes, those two can play away from the ball, but as they’re both still ineffective shooters, I don’t see the fit.
LBJ has shown that he plays best with finishers like Kevin Love or Chris Bosh, as well as slashing playmakers that can take a shot off the dribble, like Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade. Are Ingram and Ball those guys? Not that I’m seeing. Not yet.
Craig, what are your thoughts on how long the window would be with LeBron? And do you agree with my thoughts on roster construction?
The CDP: Look, I understand that potential is overrated in a star driven league. In the NBA, draft picks are less valuable once they become players and Mark Cuban once considered Rodrigue Beaubois to be untouchable (Editor’s Note: This is somehow not hyperbole).
It may be true that cap space doesn’t win championships, but the Lakers have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to use theirs wisely before they have to start extending the young guns to expensive contracts.
Signing LeBron James is a huge opportunity to add talent, but signing him to a max deal leads to a series of tough decisions.
Is he willing to sign a multi-year deal or will he insist on the kind of one-year contracts that have allowed him to strongarm Cleveland into re-signing his buddies to cap-killing contracts? Remember when JR Smith was worth $15M a year? Neither do I.
There is no question that LeBron the GM has hindered the on-court performance of LeBron the Player. In order to make Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert pay the luxury tax, they were saddled with short-sighted moves for veterans instead of smart team building like keeping first-round picks.
Moreover, an aging LeBron means the immediate window is wide open but it is likely only a couple of years at best. While up-and-coming, the young Lakers are not ready to contend like Boston’s core, which represent a huge opportunity cost with LBJ. Instead of trying to build a ten-year foundation with more uncertainty, the Lakers would likely sell off the youth movement and team chemistry for guys that fit LeBron’s timeline.
Would they trade for disgruntled but talented assets like CJ McCollum or Kawhi Leonard? Sign-and-trade for Paul George and/or Chris Paul? Maybe one of the Ingram/Lonzo/Kuzma core could survive, but the rest of the roster would be top heavy and at risk for 1-2 injuries that could derail the whole season.
With that in mind, what is the worst case scenario for the Lakers team if they actually did sign LeBron?
MAMBINO: My worst case scenario is if they signed him and didn’t go all-in. What does that mean? That means selling everything. Ev. Re. Thang. Ingram, Ball, Kuz, Hart, Zubac, draft picks--see ya.
If the Lakers have the fortune to sign James, they’re throwing everything against the windowsill to prop that mufugga open. That means signing Paul George and trading for Kawhi Leonard or CJ McCollum or Kevin Love or Marc Gasol. Yes you’re signing a generational player in LeBron, but he’s also 34.
If you only go halfway in, which means keeping the Baby Lakers alongside Bron and potentially another All-Star, you’re potentially hampering the development of young players that may never quite turn into the stars you need them to become after James is watching from his corner suite.
A team with the King, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and All-Star X won’t be ready to compete with the Warriors next season, nor the season after that, most likely. Then we’re talking about a 36-year-old LeBron and at that point, there’s really no telling what toll nearly 20 years in the league will have taken on him.
Right or wrong, the Lakers have to go all-in if they sign LeBron. If not, they’re skating a line that won’t lead to success either way. Craig, are you in agreement or am I out of my tree?
CDP: Yes, I think you are right - let’s just add a bottom line: Would you do it?
Gun to my head, I would of course sign LeBron because having a top-five player is the only way to win, and LeBron is still at the peak of his powers. All of the concerns about how long he can stay this good or his impact on the front office would have to take a backseat. It could be a huge gamble to go all-in for just a few years, but it’s the kind of gamble you take if LeBron-freaking-James is knocking. Now, excuse me as I go hyperventilate into a brown paper bag.
Mambino: Without the promise of creating a super team with PG-13 and Kawhi, you’d have to sign him. Even if the LeBron we just saw in the 2018 playoffs only lasts another year or two, it’s worth compromising the young players’s growth or even presence on the Lakers.
However, if signing LeBron is prioritized over taking either Paul George or trading for Kawhi Leonard, absolutely not. The Lakers have always prioritized being competitive long term — this is not a franchise that has historically not made trades or moves for the short term. Even for LeBron James, one of the greatest players ever, it’s not worth the health of the next ten years of Lakers basketball. It’s just not.