Wednesday, July 4, 2018

LeBron James and the summer of the Lakers’ content…or discontent





Dear Laker Stans,

Your team began its offseason by drafting a couple of intriguing floor-stretchers and then signed LeBron James—aka the World’s Best Player—on a 3+1 deal.

Yeah, you let Julius Randle go but you kept a potent young core in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Plus, KCP is back in the fold at a discount. Hooray!

Additionally, three veteran role players are on board in Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson. Two of the three knuckleheads own rings, one is a three-time assists leader and one is nicknamed “Born Ready.”

You’re not yet over the cap, you’ll have cash to spend next year, you didn’t give up any future picks and your glut of meaningful rookie contracts mean you’re financially well-positioned for years to come. 

So why the long faces; the gnashing of teeth; the panicky outcries and lighting of creosote torches?

Apparently, because the front office didn’t see fit to trade its best young assets for Kawhi Leonard and his degenerating quad, nor did they invest in Boogie Cousins’ shredded Achilles.

Meanwhile, all of NBA fandom—not just the Lakers—has declared next season to be over before it even begins. Because, naturally, the Golden State Warriors who had until now been casually chilling in their championship afterglow, took a moment to toss the MLE at Cousins (when nobody else would), knowing full well that he might not actually play, or that he might not play well.

Back-to-back champions can afford to do that. A rebuilding team fresh off five losing seasons—and who finally, incongruously, hit the honeypot with LeBron—can-not-and-should-not-do-that.

Nonetheless, there is a sizable contingent of soothsayers—armed with empirical data and abstract dot-connecting—that is tilting at the interwebs in the firm belief that Rondo’s flameout in Dallas four years ago, or Stephenson’s wild inconsistency and/or character issues, or JaVale’s limited yet effective 9.5 minutes per game last season (including starting three-out-of-four in the Finals) somehow impinges disproportionately on LeBron’s consistent greatness and will, in fact, send everything hopelessly spinning down the drainage hole of oblivion. Also inherent in the doom-and-gloom scenario is a belief that too many playmakers and not enough firing power is at stark odds with the modern-day game.

But as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne write, all of the memes and jokes may actually be part of the Lakers’ master plan: a blueprint for a superstar to age successfully.

What if somewhere in a parallel universe—a place where palm trees gently sway and every day is the perfect temperature, where limos glide past homeless encampments and ultra-fit bodies scamper up dusty canyon trails—the Los Angeles Lakers actually wind up having a semi-awesome season? Sure, there may be cringe-worthy moments here and there, and probably too many game that are won based on James’ inherent greatness overcoming the opposition while his teammates stand and stare (not that Laker fans have ever witnessed such a thing before, centering around any other geriatric franchise superstars). But the overall idea remains that entertainment abounds and wins happen more frequently than not. For good measure, let’s also toss in all the unexpected injuries, losing streaks, winning streaks and general force majeure that are part of the long NBA season and life itself.

The locusts swarm of free agency began at midnight Saturday EST, blazed furiously for a few hours, took a Sunday morning pause and then went supernova that evening with LeBron’s signing. It was the beginning of the end of meaningful money deals—roughly 90 percent of all free agent spending occurred within a 24-hour-period, yet the majority of actual free agents are still in limbo, unsigned and uncertain of what comes next.

And if the undulating nature of Laker fandom—the long faces and teeth-gnashing and creosote torches on one side, offset by optimism and joy from the other—had blazed so fiercely during the initial spasm of free agency, Monday and Tuesday brought a more temperate rehashing of issues and analysis, and a barely existent trickle of players being signed to table scraps. By July 4, traditionally a hot time for the basketball marketplace, attention had drifted away to hotdog-eating contests and a woman scaling the Statue of Liberty.

At some point the Lakers will have to sign a starting center, using what’s left of their money. The odds are fairly decent that Brook Lopez will be persuaded to return back for a year at an approximate 75 percent discount. Meanwhile, Leonard’s prospects for a trade seem increasingly dim, his management having grossly misplayed its hand. At least he’s still collecting a max contract for not playing.

A holiday comes to a close and a new workday is about to begin. And life slowly restores its balance, like ebbing ripples from a skipping stone. The start of the NBA regular season is only 105 days away.

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