5-on-5: LeBron's legacy, Kawhi trades and title favorites
Our NBA experts answer the big questions.
1. What does this move mean for the NBA?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN.com: An immense balance-of-power shift back to the West. Life looks a lot harder for any Western Conference playoff hopeful, with the addition of another wrecking ball in a James-led Lakers team, even assuming no further improvements to the roster. Furthermore, by agreeing to a long-term deal, he gives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka enough leeway to be able to make decisions over time to further enhance the supporting cast.
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: It means the NBA’s orange ball is LeBron’s orbit, and the rest of the league is floating aimlessly about, hoping to be sucked into his world. He is the Kevin Bacon of the NBA — everyone is six degrees of separation from LeBron. Kawhi Leonard (His future hinges on LeBron.) Kevin Durant. (Sign for one year with an option … so he can see what LeBron is up to?) Chris Paul. (He was with James in a Hollywood nightclub when he OK’d the trade to the Rockets last summer.) Lonzo Ball. (Is he staying or going? Perhaps only LeBron knows!) JR Smith. (Seriously.) Lance Stephenson. (Stunningly, on his way to team up with LeBron.)
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: The league has the potential to be imbalanced in a way it hasn’t been since the Boston Celtics traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. In the decade before that deal, the West ruled the NBA with an iron fist. With the Heat and the Cavs, James led the Eastern Conference champions for eight consecutive seasons, winning three titles and always giving his team a puncher’s chance. The East will need the Celtics to step up or the 76ers to grow up quickly to stay relevant in the championship conversation.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Mostly that we could really use 1-16 seeding in the playoffs at this point. The best players — and, by definition, best teams — are all in the West. That was already the case before, and now even more so.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: It shifts the epicenter of the league’s power even farther West. As Dan Feldman of NBC Sports pointed out on Twitter, just one player certain to be in the East this season has ever made the All-NBA first team: Joakim Noah. (Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade are candidates for that list.) Yes, the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are on the rise. For now, however, the league’s best and most interesting teams remain in the West.
2. Are the Lakers contenders now? If not, how far away are they?
Herring: Right now? No. This is a really young team that last season was one of the worst in the league in 3-point shooting — LeBron needs shooters around him — and could use some better defense on the wings. Both things could be addressed by moving major pieces to get Leonard, which would almost certainly be good for the short-term outlook. But such a deal would immediately thin the team’s secondary scoring depth, probably in the form of Kyle Kuzma or Brandon Ingram, if not both.
Pelton: Championship contenders? No. It’s not yet clear the Lakers will even be better than last season’s Cavaliers, who did play the Warriors close in two games but still got swept by an average of 15 points per game in the NBA Finals. But, as I noted in my analysis of the Lakers with LeBron, they are absolutely contenders to win a playoff series for the first time since 2012.
Elhassan: As of today? No, they’re not good enough to defeat the Warriors or the Rockets, but they can certainly make life harder for almost every other team in the conference, be it by squeezing them out of the playoff picture or defeating them in the postseason. But if the Rockets can retain the services of Clint Capela, they will remain in an echelon above every other team in the West outside of Golden State. But again, the length of commitment from James gives the Lakers breathing room in their quest to add the requisite talent to go toe to toe with the West elite.
Snellings: Not at this moment, but they aren’t nearly as far away as one might think. They have four very young but very talented players on roster in Ball, Ingram, Julius Randle and Kuzma. They have the potential to re-sign a (in theory) healthy Isaiah Thomas for what would be an extremely interesting reunion with James, and that would give them more high-level firepower. They could be one superstar trade (Leonard?) or signing (DeMarcus Cousins?) away from making things very interesting.
MacMullan: The Lakers at this exact moment are still pretenders when you whip out that Golden State measuring stick and size up their roster. But that could change in a hurry if a certain two-way star with a cranky quadriceps somehow extricates himself from one of the most revered teams in the league. No Kawhi, no title.
3. What should be the Lakers’ approach to a potential Kawhi Leonard trade?
Pelton: I would be cautious. Yes, the example of Paul George shows that players can be swayed by good experiences with new teams. But George and Leonard are different people in different situations, and the opposite is also true: The Lakers could deal for Leonard and end up losing him anyway, as happened with Dwight Howard. And Leonard isn’t their only option in 2019 free agency, so better for the Lakers to hold on to their young prospects — necessary pieces to complement LeBron and another star.
Herring: You’d obviously want to give up as little as possible. But if the Lakers are looking to maximize the championship window, and the Spurs know how badly L.A. needs Leonard in its lineup, there’s a pretty good chance L.A. is going to end up parting ways with a combination of two or three solid young players (Kuzma, Ingram, Josh Hart) and a pick or two. It’s hard to argue it shouldn’t, given that most people would consider Leonard a top-five talent when healthy. In the end, you’re merely hoping Ingram or anyone else can become that good someday.
MacMullan: They should do whatever it takes to get him. Now. ASAP. It will likely cost them draft picks and great young talent (Ingram, Kuzma, Hart?), and in the short term, it will leave them with a roster short on depth and clarity. But just consider the mayhem LeBron and Kawhi could create against that Warriors lineup — on both ends of the floor.
Snellings: If a trade can be worked out to bring Leonard to L.A. this season, the Lakers should do it so they can start their new era with all of their primary pieces in place. But if the asking price is just too high or San Antonio is set on keeping Kawhi, it would also be acceptable for the Lakers to wait it out. Eventually, the Spurs will blink or Leonard will hit unrestricted free agency. Either way, the Lakers are now in the driver’s seat and have no need to compromise on what they want.
Elhassan: The Spurs no doubt will seek more aggressive pitches for Leonard (if and when they have given up their quest to convince him to stay), particularly from asset-rich, Eastern Conference, prospective trade partners such as Philly and Boston. While James’ long-term commitment theoretically means the Lakers don’t have to press to get a deal done, they’ll still look to pair him with Leonard, probably the most optimal type of talent to play alongside James. A year ago, the Lakers had an opportunity to go after George, passed on it and ended up seeing him commit to the team that ultimately did trade for him. Would they risk going through the same ordeal with Leonard?
4. Will the Lakers’ legacy be more of a plus or more of a burden for LeBron?
MacMullan: Neither. The Lakers have won before without LeBron and will win after him, because it’s L.A., Hollywood, Showtime — the perpetually sunny, always desirable NBA destination. LeBron can’t possibly stamp the same imprint as Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant. There simply isn’t time. Cleveland always was, and is, LeBron’s legacy — and his eternal burden.
Pelton: I think more of a plus. We’re far enough removed from their most recent championship that I don’t think the Lakers will be expected to win a championship immediately after adding LeBron. But if he can get them there eventually, he’ll join a long list of Lakers greats.
Elhassan: Everything is a plus from here on out for James, but it will be interesting to see how his tenure in L.A. is viewed by the Lakers’ existing fan base, particularly if he does not deliver a “multitude” of championships. For my money, if LeBron wins even one title, it solidifies him as the greatest player of all time, having been the centerpiece of four championship teams in three different cities, with all three situations having been built on the fly.
Snellings: It all comes down to the ring. If LeBron leads the Lakers to a title, then it is a huge benefit to his legacy. This would be the third team he has led to a championship, and he’d have done it for the most glamorous organization in the league. But he must lead it to that title. Anything short of that and one of the most rabid fan bases in the NBA would be disappointed and the King’s legacy would be tarnished in ways it wouldn’t have been had he stayed in Cleveland. This was a high-risk, high-reward move for LeBron, who has set himself up to be compared to the ghost of Kobe Bryant every day from now until he wins a ring.
Herring: I’m not sure yet. If he can win a title, it probably becomes a plus, because he will have done it in a major market that has never seen this sort of drought before. If he doesn’t win one, it probably doesn’t change anything at all, other than make a legion of Cleveland fans upset with him again.
5. How many titles do you expect LeBron and the Lakers to win in the next three seasons?
MacMullan: If Durant had re-upped with Golden State for four more years, I’d be tempted to say zero. But Golden State has some major financial decisions to make in the next two seasons with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, so I will say one championship on this LeBron victory tour.
Remember, though, there are the Celtics and Sixers, who two seasons from now (maybe sooner) will have allowed all their young talent to marinate into a hungry collection of stars who will be gunning for the West. And need I remind you the Rockets were one hamstring away from the Finals? LeBron appears ageless, but even the greatest stars of all time eventually fall prey to two old, familiar foes: injury and age.
Elhassan: This question is basically asking how long the Warriors are going to stay together. There will come a day when Golden State’s ownership might find the tax bills to be unpalatable and make basketball decisions based on financial reasons, and if someone is going to step up and fill that void, it will be LeBron James.
Herring: This will be a lot easier to answer once we see if they can get Leonard, and what they’d have to give up in a trade. If they can hang on to Ingram and snag Leonard, that could potentially be a scary core along with Ball. They might find the sweet spot between their own ascent and the Warriors fizzling out. So I’d like their chances of winning at least one championship over that span. Then again, the Spurs would be silly to deal Leonard without getting Ingram in return.
Snellings: One. I don’t think they win this season, barring more big moves that all mesh perfectly, as both Golden State and Houston are light-years ahead. But if the Lakers do bring in another franchise piece like Leonard, then I could see them being ready to challenge for a title in the following two seasons. I say they’d win one in that two-year window … and they’d better, because after that, you’re talking late-30s LeBron, and even Superman eventually has to slow down.
Pelton: If I had to bet on one outcome, I’d probably say zero. The Warriors are still around, and other challengers are forming. I still think going to the Rockets or the 76ers would have given James a better chance of winning a championship. That said, the average outcome for James is probably closer to one championship than none.