LeBron, Don't Come To The Lakers
Quick Note: The 2018 NBA Draft is today June 21st at 4PM PST. I will be live-tweeting the draft on @mehtakid as is annual tradition, and a compendium of my commentary will be posted on www.udaymehta.com tomorrow.
I've spent a lot of time sports-hating LeBron James. Sports hatred is a very specific kind of hatred – it's not visceral, it doesn't make your blood boil. Rather, it's a heightened frustration, yell-at-your-TV strain of hatred. Sports hatred is inherently less personal but somehow more personal, as if you know the person even though you only spend a couple hours with them every week through the pixels of a screen. Yet, every second of that time is spent rooting against their success. You may have people in your life – former friends, coworkers, nemeses – that you actively root against, but it's likely because of the way they are or what they did. Those are things that you had to experience for yourself. But sports somehow become personal in that very same way, such that the experiences of the team you root for become your own, to the point that you start using 'we' when referring to the team that you support.
This particular sports hatred began just about a decade ago, when LeBron James went from being LeBron James to just being 'LeBron'. He began to enter the best-player-in-the-league dialogue, the Cavaliers' flameouts in the playoffs were happening deeper into the rounds, and Kobe Bryant was once again on the ascent. As a Lakers fan, it was a given which side I'd be on in the Kobe-LeBron debate (a debate which has since been driven into the ground, only kept alive by insistent Kobe stans and Kobe Bryant himself), but being a Lakers fan meant that you *had* to be firmly on that side. There was no liking LeBron. There was anticipation and excitement at the prospect of the two meeting in the NBA Finals, a possibility that was the most likely in 2009 when the heavily favored Cavaliers fell to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic despite a James game winner. Kobe's three straight finals runs ended in 2010, just a year before LeBron's eight straight finals runs began in 2011. My alignment in that debate led me to pick apart everything there was about LeBron – from the way he couldn't shoot, to the number of fouls he drew, to the crab dribble travel move, to the constant bitching when something didn't go his way. I even occasionally perused the website ihatelebronjames.com (now apparently defunct) to see if there was anything bad LeBron did that I happened to miss and revel in the negativity directed his way.
I've had various sports hatreds throughout my time as a fan. Most of them are basketball related. There was Steve Nash (a player who I've grown to love) in the mid-aughts when they consistently beat the Lakers. There was (and still is) Kevin Garnett (a player who is very easy to hate), whose 'ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE' riff I still watch sometimes as catharsis. There was Tom Brady, mostly because it was fashionable to hate Tom Brady, and the Patriots are from the same city as the Celtics. There was the entire Phillies team for some reason. But LeBron has outlasted all of them. In some ways it's a mark of respect. I wouldn't waste time hating George Hill or Iman Shumpert because they're not interesting enough or good enough to hate. Sports hatred is reserved for those who are good at what they do, to the point that they pose a direct threat. And over time, this hatred abates. At some point it will do the same for LeBron, but that'll probably be a decade after he retires. Right now, it's still in full effect.
Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. I could sports hate LeBron and root for my teams without a second thought. But the team that I love and the player that I hate appear to be on a collision course in the coming months. While the LeBron-To-Los-Angeles rumors started as early as 2010 (the Decision when he left for Miami) and persisted through 2014 (when he decided to go back to Cleveland), this is the year when they feel real. Back in 2010, superstars teaming up wasn't an established norm, and the Lakers had just won the championship. In 2014, the Lakers were a mess following the Achilles and subsequent knee injury sustained by Kobe Bryant. This offseason, however, has been in the works for a couple of years now, with the Lakers carving out salary cap space to accommodate some superstar-level free agent salaries.
The clues have all been there. LeBron owns mansions in Brentwood. His son has apparently committed to playing high school basketball in LA. He hates the owner of the Cavaliers. He has a media company that would benefit from the Hollywood spotlight. He's already won multiple championships, including one in Cleveland. Other possibilities like Houston require too many hypotheticals for the math to work out. And yet, until July 1st, LeBron James is still a member of the Cavaliers. He could opt in to the last year of his contract and play this whole game again a year from now, or he could opt out and make his choice. If it's the latter, the Lakers seem the most likely.
It seems ludicrous that any fan wouldn't want someone who is regarded by all accounts (even by detractors) as a Top 10 player of all time. Most might even consider him Top 3, the man who is the closest to replicating the mythology of Michael Jordan. And it's not just ceremonial – James is coming off his first season playing all 82 regular season games, yet another Top-3 MVP finish, and a Finals appearance that wasn't even supposed to happen considering his trash teammates. He's good. Adding him to the Lakers may well guarantee a playoff appearance, but it won't guarantee anything beyond that. Not with proven teams like the Warriors and Rockets to get through in the conference, and the Celtics waiting on the other side.
I've seen what LeBron James does to a team. The year after he left Cleveland, they were the worst team in the league, until they stumbled ass-backwards (thanks to the dumb Clippers) into the draft pick that would become Kyrie Irving. The year after he left Miami, they fell out of the playoffs and still have no promising young players to build on. Assuming he leaves Cleveland, he'll leave them with no cap space to sign players, burdened with the contracts of players signed to his sports agency Klutch Sports (Tristan Thompson and JR Smith). He'll have gotten one coach (David Blatt) fired, and another coach (Ty Lue) with a reputation of no credibility and no agency. And sure, none of that is really is his problem, but it's the problem of the fans who will continue to be fans after LeBron as the Cavs hurtle towards a decade of irrelevance.
Having lived through the first extended period of Lakers ineptitude in history (no playoff appearances in five years, six if you count the Kobe-less Nash-less sweep to the Spurs in 2013), the only thing we've had to look forward to is the drafting and performance of young players. The first piece was Julius Randle in 2014, who has since become a quality rotation player who might be the first domino to fall to accommodate LeBron. There were Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, both of whom were shipped out earlier this season in a salary dump to accommodate LeBron. There was D'Angelo Russell, the SECOND OVERALL PICK (yes, I'm still mad), traded a year ago in… you guessed it, a salary dump (of Timofey Mozgov) to accommodate LeBron. There are Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, who may be traded away for Kawhi Leonard, in a win-now move catered to utilizing the end of LeBron's prime. And there's Lonzo Ball, whose dad may be considered too much of a headache for LeBron to the point that Lonzo is expendable. The team has been halfway gutted just from the anticipation of signing LeBron – getting him on board might require pulling out the scalpel.
I remember all too well that Kobe was good – amazing, even – until he wasn't. He took great care of his body and had a legendary work ethic, but his Achilles didn't care about that. The next two years and $48 millionwere an extended tribute to one of the greatest Lakers players of all time, consequences to the team be damned. It was something we could all stomach because Kobe had been a lifer who brought five championships. Remember, Kobe was also someone who never got hurt or played through the pain, a label currently attached to LeBron. Kobe had been banging out 25-point seasons like clockwork until… he wasn't. We don't know when the cliff will arrive for LeBron, and that's the point. The risk is too great, especially when there is an alternative.
Remember the last Lakers championship team? It doesn't feel like it was that long ago, but it was eight years – a period so long that only Pau Gasol still remains in the league from that roster. Most of that rotation consisted of Lakers draftees – Jordan Farmar (4th year), Derek Fisher (14th), Sasha Vujacic (6th), Luke Walton (7th), and of course Kobe (14th). The only other relevant ones were Lamar (who had been around on the team for a while beforehand), Shannon Brown (young guy), Metta World Peace, and Gasol. Having rooted for the Golden State Warriors ever since moving to the bay area in 2012, I can definitively say that the pre-Kevin Durant and post-Durant eras have been different. Those 2015-2016 finals teams were homegrown, and it wasn't just the stars. It was guys like Festus Ezeli and James Michael McAdoo. The last two years weren't just different because it felt like the Warriors were boringly superior, it was because Durant was the best player but Steph Curry was the guy everyone wanted to see succeed.That 2010 team was beloved in Lakerland even though they would have been annihilated by any of the championship teams since. They were good enough to win the championship, but historically they were just kind of okay. Despite that, that's the most fun I had rooting for a team, ever. That 2004 Finals team with Karl Malone and Gary Payton? They're not remembered quite as fondly, and it's not just because they were dysfunctional and imploded in the Finals. It's because those guys weren't really Lakers.
And in case you don't remember, Steph Curry wasn't STEPH CURRY until his fourth year in the league. Klay and Draymond weren't all-stars until their fourth years either. Very few players are great right out of the gate. None of the Lakers' young players have even gotten to their fourth full year. But there are still signs of a potential great scorer (Ingram), a potential great shooter (Kuzma), a potential great playmaker (Ball), and a potential great big (Randle). Yes, there are a lot of 'potential' disclaimers in there, but that's the joy of watching a young team grow. Sure, it's an emotional argument, but that's what makes sports great. We've come too far in the discussion surrounding basketball to just stack rings and compare our stack with others. What do I care about the Lakers having more rings than the Celtics? I've been around to enjoy five Lakers championships. And I want to enjoy another Lakers championship. Not a mercenary championship. Not a Klutch sports championship. Not a LeBron championship.
So LeBron, don't come to the Lakers. I like Randle, and Ingram, and Kuzma, and Lonzo. I like the front office. I despise Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but that's not the point. I like coach Luke Walton. I like rooting for a team that's genuinely fun to watch develop and grow together. I might even like watching an established player like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard lead this group into the future. But I won't like watching you. I'll still root for the Lakers, but not with the excitement with which I did this season. I'll check the box scores, secretly hoping that you had a bad game but the Lakers still pulled out the win. And I'll count on a 2018 Celtics-like situation, where you go down and the young guys band together to make an improbable run. But it just won't be the same.