The LeBron James MVP hype train has slowly been picking up speed as we near the end of the 2019-20 NBA regular season.
We’ve all heard it by now: LeBron James is officially the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In a deal that was agreed on well before the news officially broke, James is committing to a four year, $154-million deal.
And so with surprisingly little drama, the two biggest names in this iteration of NBA free agency have found their homes – James with the Lakers and Paul George staying in Oklahoma City.
Lakers fans are ecstatic, and rightly so, but unfortunately for them, James’ arrival is not enough to turn them into real championship threats.
In the Lakers’ current state, they are easily worse than Golden State or Houston and barely seem better than teams like OKC, New Orleans (with DeMarcus Cousins), or San Antonio (with or without Kawhi Leonard) – teams with superior talent and/or coaching.
James and a bunch of young, unproven players will not advance out of the brutally deep Western Conference. If his ultimate goal is still pursuing championships, he had better options with more established talent, such as the 76ers.
Especially with George no longer an option for LA, Magic Johnson is in a tough position if he is trying to build a title contender in one year.
I’m sure James has taken all this into account, so I have to think that either the move out west was heavily based on his family and business opportunities, or that he knows another big name is a lock to join him.
But who, and can anyone even raise the Lakers to the Warriors’ level?
Leonard has been adamant that he wants out of San Antonio and has repeatedly expressed his desire to be a Laker. That’s all well and good, but there is no guarantee that he will end up there.
The Spurs have no reason to trade him to LA unless they receive a motherload of assets including at least Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and draft picks, and such a deal would gut the Lakers depth.
While it seems much more likely that Leonard would be traded to the Eastern Conference (where a team like the Sixers are a fascinating option, and one that he would be very tempted to re-sign with), we can pretend for the sake of discussion that he is being dealt to the Lakers.
Now, obviously, you make that trade if you’re the Lakers. Leonard, if healthy, is the second or third best player in the league.
But in this scenario, a team with James, Leonard, Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson and whatever collection of veterans end up there still seems miles behind Golden State. I’m not even sure that squad is better than Houston.
I could just be underrating Leonard after not seeing him play for a year, but the Warriors’ collection of talent is just on another level. And can we even be sure that he’ll be 100 per cent this season?
The Lakers could also wait, be content with a playoff spot this year and then move to sign Leonard in free agency in the next offseason, but as we saw with George, there is no way to guarantee that a player will join your team a year in the future even if he’s interested now. Too much can change, especially if Leonard ends up on a team he really likes this season.
On one hand, a team with James and Leonard with Ingram and Kuzma still in the mix is very intriguing. On the other, waiting a year to build that squad means essentially wasting a year of James playing at the highest level – and an older player, even one that is still elite, is always one injury away from a steep decline (see Bryant, Kobe).
Outside of Leonard, there aren’t many obvious moves LA can make to bring in high-level talent this offseason.
DeMarcus Cousins is out there, but a big man coming off an Achilles injury is something that I’d be wary of. And while James and Cousins would wreak havoc offensively, that team would struggle on defence, especially in transition.
They could try offering him a 1+1 ‘prove it’ type of deal that still allows them to be a player in the next free agency period.
If the Lakers manage to land both Leonard and Cousins this season, we finally have a team that looks like a real contender if healthy. But again, the odds of Leonard getting traded to LA don’t seem great to me.
There are plenty of other solid players the Lakers could look at. Tyreke Evans, Wayne Ellington, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard, or Nerlens Noel could all fit in somewhere, but none of them puts the team over the top.
In the end, it feels like so many different things need to fall into place for the Lakers to have genuine title hopes, and it’s hard to be confident that everything will break their way. Signing James is certainly a huge accomplishment, and one the organisation and their fans should be incredibly excited about.
But in this superstar-driven league, the top teams all have at least two elite players, and the best one has four. Unless the Lakers make more splashes, temper your expectations. I’m waiting with bated breath to see what Johnson and Rob Pelinka have planned next.
And no matter what, until Steph Curry and Kevin Durant walk back to their locker rooms for the last time in May or June, heads bowed in defeat, I can’t confidently believe that the championship picture has changed one bit.