The first time LeBron left Northeast Ohio, it was to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The Heat instantly became title favorites, and that first impression proved pretty accurate, considering they made four straight Finals and won two. As Wade and Bosh aged out of their primes and the roster around him grew creaky and ineffectual, LeBron returned to Cleveland to play for a much more promising Cavs squad that featured Kyrie Irving and (soon after LeBron signed) Kevin Love. That was another successful four-year cycle that, by the end, was getting perilously unsustainable. LeBron’s second Cleveland exit seemed imminent around February of last season, but this time, there was no obvious landing spot.
Philadelphia made some sense—he could conceivably compete for titles well into his late 30s alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid—but he would be crashing their patient rebuild, transforming The Process into yet another LeBron James Experiment. And there were concerns about how he would fit with Simmons, who more or less plays the position LeBron has perfected. Houston was another option, but with Chris Paul on his last legs, it would be only a short-term play.
In the end, the Lakers proved to be LeBron’s number one choice, not a little bit tautologically, because they’re the Lakers. They’re also in Los Angeles, where LeBron owns a production company and lives in the offseason. They have young talent that can be developed or traded away for established players. They have cap space to attract a superstar teammate or two down the line. LeBron’s move has been characterized by many as a lifestyle or business decision, and it certainly is that, but it’s not like he turned down some great, clear-cut opportunity to win another championship. It might turn out, depending on how quickly Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball come along, and whether or not Magic Johnson can nab Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant next summer, that this Lakers switch, independent of any family or fiscal concerns, is going to prove to be a smart and prescient basketball decision.
But we won’t know that for another year or two, and it is strange that LeBron is punting on a season during which he’s going to turn 34 years old. It’s strange that he won’t be in the Finals, that his best teammate is going to be a 21-year-old foundling who has never made an All-Star team. It’s strange that he’s in the Western Conference. It’s strange that he’s choosing to play with a rogues’ gallery of washed up vets who have antagonized him throughout his career. This is all going to take some getting used to, for both LeBron and the broader NBA-viewing public. Expectations need to be recalibrated, relationships forged, fresh images absorbed into memory.
This isn’t a prediction so much as a concern: what if this is the beginning of the end? Let’s say the Lakers are mediocre this year. Lonzo, pushed off the ball by LeBron, doesn’t have a clearly defined role. Ingram starts to look more like Rudy Gay than Paul George. Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo are miserable. Kyle Kuzma becomes LeBron’s new Mario Chalmers. The team slips into the playoffs as a seven seed but loses swiftly and anonymously to a much better Rockets squad. Durant decides to return to Golden State, or he goes to the Knicks. Kawhi leaves for Los Angeles—to join the Clippers. LeBron starts to seem trapped. There’s no path toward a title and his grip on the Best Player Alive designation is loosening.
Of course, that’s just conjecture, but it’s also faintly plausible. The Lakers aren’t some readymade juggernaut like the Heat or the 2014 Cavs; there’s work to be done that might not get accomplished. Things could go sideways for LeBron in a manner they haven’t since his early Cleveland days, and if they do, he probably won’t have the time to wait for the front office to fix them, or for his contract to wind down. This Lakers move is the biggest gamble he’s ever taken, due both to its fraught specifics and the fact that it’s almost definitely the last major free agency decision he’ll ever make.
Imagining a cursed Lakers future is also glimpsing into a post-LeBron NBA, or one in which he’s still around but doesn’t matter nearly as much as he used to. It’s unnerving to think about, in a value-neutral sort of way. It’s like knocking your city’s tallest building out of the skyline, like visiting the grocery store and discovering they no longer sell produce.
Regardless of how LeBron’s L.A. adventure turns out, we’re about to get a preview of what the league looks like when his team isn’t favored to make the Finals, when they don’t have even scant championship aspirations and there’s an off chance they might just kind of suck. It’ll be the start of an uncanny era or only a one-year blip before the Lakers bulk up and truly prepare to do battle with the Warriors or whoever else is at the top of the heap in 2020. The most powerful star in the league for going on a decade is finally once again letting some uncertainty into his life. It’s a bold choice. Maybe it’ll turn out to be the right one. But LeBron has limited control over what happens next. Strangely, startlingly, the shape of the back end of his career isn’t really up to him.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic