Tuesday, July 3, 2018

King James Inc. comes West

THE BIGGEST unsecret in the history of professional sports was officially revealed on Sunday: On the first day of NBA free agency, LeBron James opted out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in order to join the Los Angeles Lakers, which  everyone on this planet and worlds beyond our own knew was coming.

Fans of professional basketball had been milking the drama hard for all it was worth. Sports columnists tried to pretend King James was going somewhere else. It’s as if they hoped to preserve the delicious unknowing — the start of the third act, when everything hangs in the balance — even after such cheap drama exhausted itself in a losing footrace with the facts.

And the facts were obvious. It wasn’t the money; King James could write God a check for walking around money right now. It wasn’t even necessarily the chance to win a fourth ring of the lords, the necessary hardware for any serious comparison to the inevitable Michael Jordan Benchmark. LeBron James is really coming to the Lakers for one reason: It’s the opportunity to place a capstone on a stellar career in the one American city whose outsized mythology is a match for his own.

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And no other city can do it. Not New York. Not Boston. Oklahoma City? Please. Houston? Yeah right. Another sojourn in Miami? Nope, been there, done that. For King James, closing his career with the Lakers completes a personal coast-to-coast resumé of winning work at teams across the country, from Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles. He could have played anywhere, but it was the siren song of La La Land that beckoned him.

Well, mostly. It was also the siren song of Magic Johnson, the Lakers head of basketball operations who charmed James with a personal touch — and a personal Saturday visit to James’ palatial digs in Brentwood. The result: By Sunday evening, at the end of the first full day of the free-agency season, the marquee attraction was already off the table. LeBron James was a Laker, with a four-year deal worth $154 million. Safe bet: Next season, Staples Center will be at capacity, 19,067 asses in 19,067 seats. Jack’s too.

Tributes came in thick and fast, of course, via the Twitter quick-twitch response. Lonzo Ball, the Lakers’ promising point guard, didn’t waste any time acknowledging the new sheriff in town. “Y’a ll thought he was gonna pass up the greatest city in the world ... #TheKingIsHere,” Ball tweeted on Sunday. Ball’s tweet, diplomatically timed to The Announcement itself, made sense for other reasons. Ball and fellow Laker Kyle Kuzma have been recently engaged in a social media dissfest that’s gotten personal. Almost too personal for the front office.

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BALL’S performance on the court has been mixed but in a generally positive way. Last year his shooting was inconsistent, but he was a force in rebounds and assists. Being sidelined for a strain in his median cruciate ligament didn’t help. Since then, his on-court performance has improved — somewhat: A look at Ball’s rookie season stats show, well, room for improvement, which is to be expected from a rookie.

So to the extent that Lonzo is serious about his career with the Lakers, his congratulatory tweet was a way of telling King James, without actually saying it: “All due propers, LeBron, I’m down for the program.” It was also a way of proving Lonzo understands that, with the arrival of LeBron (and his ravenous work ethic), school is about to be in session, and Lonzo damn well better not cut class.

The other Ball — the unspoken LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s father and the brains behind Big Baller Brand athletic apparel — may be a thornier issue. The outspoken father, who’s been praising his son and his company to the skies, may be the X factor in Lonzo’s future with the Lakers, and how smoothly that future unfolds next season.

Jemele Hill of The Undefeated weighed in on the LeBron/LaVar relationship. “I’m most interested in what happens with Lonzo Ball,” Hill tweeted on July 1. “If he’s not included in any future deals to bring another star, LeBron being there is going to force LaVar to be quiet. Let him pop off about LeBron at any point, and they’ll put Lonzo in a one-way U-Haul with some Cliff bars.”

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Brad Botkin at CBS Sports wrote about how, despite the hoopla and celebration, and the obvious shift in the NBA balance of power, the Lakers may have left a lot on the table — by overlooking or ignoring the free agency of the electrifyingly dominant DeMarcus (Boogie) Cousins, just snapped up by ... the Golden State Warriors.

“In the end, the real winner here is Cousins, who can take his time getting back to full strength on a team that doesn't need him in any way. Seriously, they don't need him. Potentially one of the best players in the league is a luxury. And a very cheap one. If he makes it back to something near full strength, the Warriors are going to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled, bar none. Discussion over.

“Imagine trying to keep your eye on the two greatest shooters in NBA history in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, quite possibly the greatest pure scorer in history in [Kevin] Durant, and even if you somehow manage to stop those three (which you won't), you now have to deal with a seven-footer who averaged 25 points and 13 boards last year. Then, even if you shut all four of those guys down, you have a borderline Hall of Famer in Andre Iguodala COMING OFF THE BENCH. Then, on the less than 1 percent chance all those guys are having an off night on the same night, the Warriors, behind one of the 10 best defenders ever in Draymond Green, have the best defense in the league, too. It's a joke.”

Rest assured, the Lakers aren’t laughing. You don’t beef up the marquee like this for nothing. Before James was signed, Johnson had already said he’d quit his Lakers job if he couldn’t attract a major world-rattling talent. Johnson, the team and the city knew what was at stake.

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WITH MAYOR Eric Garcetti making exploratory presidential noises, and the 2024 Olympic Games in the wings, Los Angeles is set to cash in on a fulfilled pop-cultural manifest destiny, and that includes sports, and at least a shot at attaining the lofty perches of the past, when Showtime was in session and Jack showed up pretty much all the time and ... and everything was just better.

We’re almost fated to a “High Noon”-style face-off between the Lakers and the Warriors, maybe as soon as next season. The early betting line is that the Warriors will almost certainly re-repeat as champions. But you don’t play the game on paper.

You play it in the streets and alleys, you play it in the gyms and driveways. You play it in the cities. And no other city in America transmits the shock of the new like LA does, and the Lakers know that. And LeBron James knows it too.

Image credits: James: Maddie Mayer/Getty Images. Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball: Ethan Miller/Getty Images. DeMarcus Cousins: Getty Images. James Laker jerseys: poshmark.com

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