Watching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers struggle in the playoffs brings into harsh focus one of the overlooked realities of King James’ game, namely that LeBron does not actually make the players around him better.
There’s a reason Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland, why Kevin Love can’t be the superstar he was in Minnesota, why Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. haven’t contributed, and why the Los Angeles Lakers should respectfully pass on pursuing and signing LeBron James as a free agent this summer. Contrary to what many pundits continue to claim, LeBron James is not an easy player to play with nor a player who makes those around him better.
The truth is, while playing with LeBron often leads to championship rings, it also inevitably results in lower stats, fewer opportunities, and less money. Players who are used to having the ball in their hands have to learn to play without it. Players who are used to moving with and without the ball have to learn to spot up and wait for LeBron to pass the ball. Players who were used to being or aspired to be the man have to sacrifice and put their egos in check.
Which is exactly not what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka should want for their talented young core. Forget the difference in age and championship windows, style of play is where LeBron to the Lakers fails to pass the test. Luke Walton has the Lakers playing an exciting up tempo brand of basketball that demands constant ball and player movement and disdains the isolation style of basketball into which LeBron James presence inevitably devolves.
For some players, the opportunity to win a ring playing with LeBron is worth the cost to their career stats and ultimate diminution of their value as players. That’s great if you’re a veteran player looking to cap off a career with a ring but for a hungry budding young star looking to make his name and earn his place in the NBA, having to sacrifice and compromise your game and growth and development isn’t worth the lessons to be learned playing with LeBron.
What LeBron does is dominate the ball and everything his team does at both ends of the court. There is no system other than LeBron controlling the rock and deflating teammates who need or play best with the ball in their hands. That old school superstar iso-ball model may have worked in the past but the Celtics’ and Warriors’ domination of the Cavs and Rockets in the playoffs this year clearly show that the future belongs to team ball more than hero ball.
Nobody ever speculates about LeBron joining the Celtics or Warriors for the simple reason that they wouldn’t want or need him. He’s the wrong superstar for the way they want to play and the talented team-first rosters they’ve built. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will hopefully come to the same conclusion. LeBron James may be the greatest player on the planet today but that doesn’t change the reality that he is the wrong superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers have built an impressive identity as a young team that relentlessly pushes the pace and selflessly moves the ball on offense and aggressively switches everything on defense. They have a potentially transcendent young point guard in Lonzo Ball who needs the ball in his hands to become great. They have two budding future stars in Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma who are adept at creating shots for themselves and teammates and need the ball.
The last thing they should want to do at this point in their rebuild is throw all that away, take the ball out of Lonzo Ball’s hand, and turn the team over to a superstar whom the Lakers’ players themselves likely don’t want to see come. Lonzo Ball may idolize LeBron James but it’s easy to understand why he’s not in favor of LeBron wearing purple and gold as indicated by recent comments, which definitely didn’t constitute a plea to LeBron to don the purple and gold.
“If LeBron comes, great. If not, I wish him the best. But I like our team right now, to be honest. Got a lot of young, growing talent — myself, Kuz, Brandon Ingram is growing a lot, Julius Randle really evolved this year. I love those guys, and we’ll be special in the future.”
The truth is, as a 32-years old, 3-time NBA champion, LeBron James is not going to change how he plays. Whatever team he goes to is going to have to change their current style of play and likely a good portion of their roster. That means head coach Luke Walton would have to throw out his new school motion offense and the positive culture, chemistry, and continuity he’s built and replace them with an isolation offense with LeBron dominating the ball.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka need to realize that’s too great a price for this Lakers team to pay even to sign the greatest player on the planet. The harsh reality is LeBron James is the wrong superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers.