LeBron James Turns NBA Upside Down with Free-Agent Move to LA Lakers

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 2, 2018

B/R

LeBron James' decision to agree to join the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year, $154 million contract was the quietest bombshell in NBA free-agent history.

Klutch Sports announced the move with a nondescript tweet:

No televised special. No "as told to" announcement letter. Just a tweet. That's it. That's how everyone learned the best player alive would join the Lakers, tilt the balance of conference power even more steeply toward the West and influence just about every other major transaction yet to come this summer.

This relocation, James' third, was all business in its delivery, an appropriate tone for what feels like a "let's get serious" move. The length of James' deal may be the most surprising element of all, as he'd recently eschewed anything longer than a two-year commitment with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There's a chance James learned from the way he handled things in Cleveland; you'd have to assume that ring-chasers and less established talents alike will now be more willing to join James in L.A. because they know he can't bolt next summer if he's unsatisfied.

Perhaps, too, James is acknowledging his own basketball mortality. One-year deals are effectively bets a player makes on himself. They belie confidence in a sustained level of excellence. At 33, is James less certain he'll remain dominant enough to keep up the year-to-year approach?

Either way, if James wants help with the Lakers, the duration of his contract makes it much easier to get some.

Los Angeles didn't waste time securing reinforcements, according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

That's a phenomenal, below-market deal for (ahem, Klutch client) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—one that gives James the most dynamic wing he's played with since prime Dwyane Wade. The question now is: Who else is coming?

If the addition of noted LeBron ear-blower and Grade-A wild card Lance Stephenson, first reported by Charania, is any indication, everyone and everything is in play.

Kawhi Leonard is the biggest fish available now that Paul George is committed to the Oklahoma City Thunder for at least the next three years, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and DeMarcus Cousins is still a candidate to soak up some of the Lakers' cap space...and they still have plenty of that, according to Albert Nahmad:

KCP's quick decision may suggest there are other chambered moves out there. Does this mean a Leonard trade is in the bag? Is Cousins signing a lucrative one-year deal a foregone conclusion?

To truly maximize the roster around James, some current Lakers may have to be moved, which...awkwaaaaard. LeBron's arrival sent waves of jubilation throughout the organization. Those expressing it most strongly, like Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, might be pieces in whatever deal eventually brings Leonard aboard.

In light of that, they might want to pump the brakes with these reactions:

The rest of the West must now evaluate its offseason anew. The Houston Rockets are losing Trevor Ariza to the Suns on a one-year, $15 million deal, per Charania. Suffice it to say this is not a good time for contenders to be losing top-end defensive wings in the West. The Rockets tend to have backup plans for their backup plans, so perhaps they won't be caught without a replacement. But Ariza's departure leaves a hole large enough for James to bulldoze through in a playoff series.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs lost more leverage in their dealings with Leonard, whose threat to join the Lakers in 2019 is now precisely zero percent bluff. He knows James will be there when he hits free agency, so San Antonio's motivation to trade its best player now intensifies.

The Golden State Warriors were quietly winning the offseason. They watched the Rockets lose Ariza, saw Paul George not agree to sign with L.A. ahead of James and then got Kevin Durant to agree to a contract that could save them as much as $29.1 million, according to The Athletic's Danny Leroux.

Though James' arrival in the West doesn't necessarily change the way we evaluate Golden State's offseason, you'd have to assume the Dubs will use their taxpayer mid-level exception now. Durant's decision seemed designed to nudge the Warriors toward more spending. With James in L.A., it would feel like malpractice if Golden State didn't use every available resource to improve.

You can't get complacent when the only guy to beat you in the Finals just joined your conference.

While analyzing what James' presence means for the West, it's important to also note the destruction his absence visits on the East. The inferior conference just lost the guy who represented it in the Finals for eight straight years. The talent gap, absurdly vast to begin with, is now a chasm you can't see across with the naked eye, as NBC Sports' Dan Feldman observed:

The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics can operate with less urgency now, building for the future and knowing they have roughly a half-decade's worth of conference finals clashes ahead. That's if the Toronto Raptors don't undergo some kind of reinvigoration now that the bully who picked on them for years is gone.

The Cavs should probably look to move Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and anything not nailed down. It took a monumental effort by James (and a complete midseason roster overhaul) to get this defensively inept bunch to the Finals. With the roster that remains, the playoffs feel like a long shot—even in the further depleted East.

The timing (July 1, mere hours into free agency) and manner (a plain press release) show this move is different for James. There's a no-nonsense feel to it—and maybe even a bit of finality in the wake of a four-year commitment. He's in on the Lakers. So now, just when it started to look like they might be headed for a disappointing offseason, James' team is an instant contender—one that'll definitely improve as money dries up around the league and quality veterans have to choose between roster exceptions and minimums.

Suddenly, the Lakers' MLE and end-of-bench spots look better than just about anyone else's.

Big(ger) picture, we can even start wondering where James will ultimately fit in Lakers lore. Do we need to reserve space for a statue outside Staples Center? What of the intractable "Kobe's better" crowd? When they have to process James joining their team, will all of their heads explode? Or just most of them?

Those are issues for another time. For now, James joining the Lakers means one of the NBA's marquee franchises—perhaps the marquee franchise—is more relevant than it's been in years. This is the move Lakers exceptionalism was designed to achieve, but the key takeaway here is that the organization did it without banking on the dangerous belief that it was special. Instead, it carved out loads of cap space, worked back channels (no, you said "tampering," not me), added young talent, brought Magic Johnson on board to win pitch meetings and positioned itself to lure in the biggest free-agent get since Shaquille O'Neal.

The Lakers are 100 percent back. This guy knew it all along.

   

Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified.

Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

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