As we all know, Lakers fans love receipts. This squad’s march through the playoffs has been accompanied by a never-ending stream of doubters’ bold predictions being thrown back in their faces. FiveThirtyEight never believed in us! Most notable media pundits picked the Clippers! We’ve somehow been a #1 seed that’s also an underdog in each playoff series!
Well, I believe we should hold ourselves to the same standard, so it’s time for my mea culpa, and for me to read my own receipts. I haven’t written for Silver Screen and Roll for just over two years – too long, my friends! – and the last article I wrote with The Great Mambino was dumb, really dumb. Maybe we shouldn’t sign LeBron James as a free agent dumb.
At the time, I’m not sure if I was drunk on the promise of the “young core” or just didn’t like having nice things. Either way, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.
And because I’m a glutton for punishment, I want to go back through history to a simpler time, specifically June 30, 2018. There was no global pandemic, no NBA bubble, and the Lakers were still knee deep in the biggest stretch of losing they had ever endured. Vegas had just set the Lakers as the odds-on favorite to sign LeBron James. We wrote a very lukewarm, very conditional endorsement of signing the greatest player alive. Just how wrong was it? Well, let’s take a look back and find out.
Argument #1: Lakers need to commit to another star, and hard.
“There are no half-measures if the Lakers do it. Even if that means shipping out the young core, they have to go all in for Paul George, Kawhi Leonard or other established stars.”
Judge’s Ruling: True
I’m going to get at least one thing right! Although it’s hilarious to think about targeting Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in retrospect, the Lakers did find a true All-Star partner for King James in Anthony Davis, another top-five NBA player, after one season of missing the playoffs. It required shipping out the entire young core (save a very grateful Kyle Kuzma), but it’s the reason the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals as we speak.
This Anthony Davis guy is really, really good, let me tell you.
Argument #2: LeBron may be too old to build around.
“My biggest concern is his age. The fact is that he’s 34 years old with more miles than any other player his age ever.”
Judge’s Ruling: WRONG!
While Father Time is undefeated, LeBron James takes incredible care of his body and is still the best player in the league. In his first season in LA, LeBron had his first major injury with a groin issue, but he played 67 of 71 possible games this season. He also maintained his level of play against impossibly high standards, finishing second in MVP voting and leading the league in assists. He also set the tone for the team and led by example on defense. What he has been able to do in his 17th season is nothing short of astounding. It’s been a joy and a privilege to get to watch him on a nightly basis.
Argument #3: The promising young Laker core will not be enough to get it done.
“While up-and-coming, the young Lakers are not ready to contend, which represents 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.”
Judge’s Ruling: Mostly correct!
As predicted, the kids were not ready, and their one season with LeBron showed that the two timelines would not mesh together. LeBron was not a great fit with a ball dominant player like Brandon Ingram, but Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball would have been excellent to pair with LeBron in a few years. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers signed a bunch of veterans like Dwight, Green, and Rondo to complement LeBron that have starred in their roles during these playoffs.
That said, I was really wrong about team chemistry – this Laker squad gets along better than any roster in my lifetime. They have bonded in a way that is genuine, heartwarming, and so much fun to watch.
Argument #4: LeBron the GM could ruin everything.
“ls he willing to sign a multi-year deal or will he insist on the kind of one-year contracts that have allowed him to strong arm Cleveland into re-signing his buddies to cap-killing contracts? Remember when JR Smith was worth $15M a year? Neither do I.”
Judge’s Ruling: Wrong!
This was a legitimate fear, as LeBron has thrust many terrible personnel moves on previous squads, often under the pressure of a series of cascading one-year deals. Shabazz Napier was drafted and Tristan Thompson re-signed at the max. Long-term flexibility was limited.
I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. In LA, LeBron has struck the perfect balance, starting with a four-year deal to give the team some runway to build the right way. He helped land Anthony Davis and vet the signing of Dwight Howard. There have been no panic moves or bad contracts — our free agent signings have all been prudent cap moves on 1-2 year contracts that have preserved future flexibility. Along the way, he has also built up the young guys like Kuzma and Caruso that have added real depth to this playoff run.
Finally, he convinced JR Smith to take a deep discount off his customary $15M salary to join the squad in the bubble (kidding!).
Conclusion: Would you do it?
“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.”
Judge’s Ruling: Right answer!
Despite all of my Nervous Nellie instincts, I thankfully ended up on the right side of history here. I bravely concluded that the Lakers should embrace the opportunity to sign one of the greatest players alive while still in his prime. Revisiting this has made me realize that, while there were some real concerns and team-building questions, the NBA is a star-driven league and sometimes you must acquire the talent first and figure out the rest later. Especially if it’s LeBron James. At least I wasn’t wrong about that part, even if I was more worried than I should have been.
Watching this squad compete for title #17, I am enjoying basketball more than I have in years, if not ever. I have been trying to savor the ability to watch one of the greatest of all time lace them up every night. At 35, LeBron still does stuff on a nightly basis that is simply incredible to behold. He has helped navigate the franchise and the league through unprecedented challenges this season with the death of Kobe Bryant and the pandemic. It has been truly special having him as a Laker – the LeBron Era has exceeded any expectations I had two years ago, both on and off the court.