Timing is everything and success is where preparation and opportunity meet. That’s also a perfect description of how the 35-win Los Angeles Lakers were able to defy the odds and sign the best player on the planet in free agency.
No disrespect to the great Jerry West but it was the Lakers’ savvy planning, dazzling vision, and team mystique that convinced LeBron James to sign with the Lakers as a free agent, not the City of Los Angeles. LeBron may have had family and business reasons to move L.A. but he would never have signed a 4-year contract with the Lakers if Jim Buss were still running the franchise, Mitch Kupchak the general manager, and Byron Scott the team’s head coach.
The genesis of the current campaign to lure LeBron to the Lakers began less than 18 months ago with Jeanie Buss’ bold and brave decision to fire her brother Jim and hire Earvin Johnson as President of Basketball Operations, the same Earvin Johnson whom LeBron grew up idolizing and looking up to as a young baller growing up fatherless in Akron, Ohio and whose business and philanthropic post-basketball career he admires and hopes to emulate.
Like her father, Jeanie Buss instinctively knew she had to change the culture of failure that had led to the longest playoff drought in Lakers’ history so she hired the one person she knew Dr. Buss fully trusted: Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. Magic in turn immediately hired Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s long time agent, to be the Lakers general manager and the two of them put together a 2-year plan to upgrade the Lakers roster and create cap space for two superstars.
Over the next 18 months, Magic and Rob totally transformed the Lakers’ roster and cap space situation through inspired drafts, savvy trades, and smart free agent signings, culminating in the signing of LeBron James.
The smartest move the Lakers made was signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has the same agent as James, to a 1-year $18 million contract, which gave Magic and Rob a full season-long opportunity to meet with LeBron’s representatives and show them what they were building and how James would not only be the perfect fit for their plans but also how the Los Angeles Lakers could be the perfect landing place for LeBron James in free agency.
Magic and Rob’s year-long campaign to sell LeBron on the Lakers was a huge success as James turned down opportunities to play with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly or James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston in order to play with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma in Los Angeles. LeBron loved the Lakers young trio so much that he did not want the team to trade any of them, not even to land a second superstar like Kawhi Leonard.
The Lakers weren’t just selling LeBron on the team’s talented young core. They were also selling him on a dazzling vision of a Lakers team that wants to run opponents into the ground, lead the league with a blistering pace, and create a modern version of Showtime with LeBron as a small ball center, an odd strategy for a 33-year old superstar who’s never played on a top-ten pace team and last season spent less than 1% of his minutes at the center position.
Instead of surrounding LeBron with 3-point shooters like the Cavs, Magic’s vision was to surround him with versatile ball handlers and playmakers who could alleviate his ball handling and playmaking duties and allow him to play fewer minutes, be fresher for the playoffs, and hopefully extend his career. Magic even envisioned a Lakers’ version of the Warriors’ ‘Death Lineup’ with LeBron playing small ball center that could be a legitimate game changer.
Magic realized from the start that whatever pitch they made to LeBron had to accomplish two major goals. First, the pitch had to be for a role LeBron would embrace and a style of play in which he would thrive. Second, the pitch had to show how the Lakers with LeBron would be able to dethrone the Warriors. Magic understood he could be taking a huge gamble but figured LeBron was finally ready for the challenge and would be eager to try something new.
Fortunately, timing is everything and LeBron was making many of the same observations Magic Johnson had made in developing his vision of LeBron James reprising his role as the ultimate Showtime playmaker and finisher. LeBron had been watching the Lakers all season and loved their young stars, Luke’s updated small ball version of Showtime, and Magic and Rob’s plan to surround him with smart, versatile players who knew how to play the game.
With LeBron aboard 100%, the Lakers opted not to trade for Kawhi Leonard and to save their cap space for a second superstar until the summer of 2019, when the superstar free agent class was expected to be deeper and better. They saved that cap space by signing vets JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and Rajon Rondo to 1-year deals. Dubbed the Meme Team by critics, the Lakers’ new signees gave the team great depth and versatility.
The dazzling vision Magic Johnson created for the Lakers and LeBron James embraced by signing a 4-year long term contract is going to unleash a LeBron the League has never before seen, a LeBron James who can make no look passes off a fast break like Magic Johnson, finish at the rim in transition like James Worthy, and dominate playing small ball center like Draymond Green. The Lakers are ready to compete for a championship and LeBron for an MVP.
The plight of losing seasons led many pundits to proclaim ‘Lakers Mystique’ no longer existed and no superstar was going to sign with a Lakers team that had failed to post a winning record or make the playoffs the last five years. With the rise of the Internet and social media, they also claimed players no longer had to play for large market teams to become superstars. They pointed to Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and most importantly to LeBron James.
The news Paul George had spurned the Lakers and was going to sign with the Thunder and stay in Oklahoma City seemed to confirm the pundits’ position. Until LeBron James announced he was signing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“This is kind of like a dream come true for me,” James said. “Growing up I was a Cowboys fan, a Bulls fan, a Yankees fan, and I’ve always felt like that was one of the historic franchises. And you look at the Lakers, being able to play for an historic franchise with so much history and being able to partner with Magic Johnson, someone I looked up to when I was younger. I wanted to make no-look passes like Magic, wanted get on the break and be Showtime like Magic. And for it all to come to fruition at this point, I think timing is everything.”
Back in the summer of 2010, right after the Lakers had beat the hated Celtics and won their 16th NBA championship, Dr. Jerry Buss had a dream of LeBron James wearing purple and gold. He thought of calling LeBron but the Lakers had their team and didn’t have cap space to sign him so nothing happened.
Until Jeanie Buss made the decision to turn the future of the Lakers over to Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson who in less than 18 months accomplished a miracle.
Timing is everything and great talent always attracts great talent. It took savvy planning, dazzling vision, and a dose of Lakers Mystique, but Magic Johnson was able to convince LeBron James to sign with the L.A. Lakers.
What comes next will be something that will make Lakers Legends proud.