In the charmed universe of the Los Angeles Lakers, there are no failures—just occasional pauses between moments of sheer, unbridled glory. At least, it can seem that way.
All those banners. All those trophies. All those legends enshrined in the Hall of Fame. There's a reason "Lakers Exceptionalism" is part of the NBA lexicon. The Lakers don't really do failure, or humility.
So it was a rare and discomfiting sensation in February when Lakers owner Jeanie Buss sat courtside at Staples Center, the Lakers' home floor, and watched the All-Star Game unfold without a single Laker involved. This was a possibility she'd openly dreaded, a fear she expressed directly to Commissioner Adam Silver when the game was awarded to L.A. two years ago.
"I said, 'You know, I'm worried ... that if the All-Star Game comes here, we may not have an All-Star on the team,'" Buss recalled just after All-Star Weekend. "I'd like to think that we're on the right path to get there. But it's humbling."
Historians might want to frame this virtual snapshot of Lakers humility, of Lakers vulnerability, because we might not see it again for years.
LeBron James is a Laker—or will be Friday, when he can officially sign the four-year, $154 million deal his agent announced Sunday. Lakers Exceptionalism wasn't dead, just dormant. LeBron revived it with a single sentence: "LeBron James, four time NBA MVP, three time NBA finals MVP, fourteen time NBA All Star, and two time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers."
All the obvious caveats apply: The Lakers still need another All-Star (or two, or three, or four) to have any hope of challenging the Golden State Warriors, who possibly got even stronger, reportedly agreeing to sign DeMarcus Cousins. In a talent-rich Western Conference, the Lakers might struggle just to crack the top four. James is 33, and the laws of physics suggest he can't play at an MVP level forever.
LeBron elevates everyone in his orbit, but even his immense powers will be tested by the new crew of teammates the Lakers are arranging: Lance Stephenson (flighty), JaVale McGee (flaky), Rajon Rondo (testy).
Can the Lakers pry Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs? Will they land some other All-Star in a stunning late-summer deal? Will they wait until July 2019, when the free-agent class could include Leonard, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Devin Booker and Myles Turner?
Valid questions, all. But set aside the logistics and the odds for now. There will be ample time for deeper analysis. This moment is (to borrow a phrase from LeBron) bigger than basketball. It's about a restoration of faith. It's about the revival of basketball's premier glamour team.
The Lakers, more than any other NBA franchise, have been defined by superstars—and by their allure as a superstar destination. This is the franchise that drew Wilt Chamberlain from Philadelphia, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee and Shaquille O'Neal from Orlando. This is the team Kobe Bryant desired as a teen phenom (even before the Lakers acquired his draft rights). This is where Karl Malone and Gary Payton came to chase a championship in 2003, and where Steve Nash and Dwight Howard came to chase their dreams almost a decade later.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka elicited a few snickers last week when he called his team "the top of the food chain" and a subject of "natural envy," but he wasn't entirely wrong. Though it's been five years since the Lakers' last playoff appearance and eight years since their last title, the vapors of their mystique lingered.
Sure, it faded some with Bryant's decline and eventual retirement. It took a hit when Howard fled to Houston, and more damaging hits when a series of elite free agents (including James) rejected the Lakers' overtures. Even Paul George—a Southern California native who a year ago was agitating for a trade to the Lakers—turned them down in free agency over the weekend.
Then, with one bold stroke, James revived Lakers mystique, and validated every major decision they've made in recent years.
It was a risk when Buss hired Magic Johnson as team president and Pelinka as GM last year, appointing two virtual rookies to lead the club. But it was Pelinka who orchestrated the roster moves that enabled the Lakers to secure James. It was the presence and gravitas of Magic—a childhood hero of LeBron's, and his most important basketball role model—that helped seal the deal.
James could have stayed home in Cleveland, or joined established contenders in Philadelphia or Houston. He turned them all down to join the Lakers, in the belief that he and Johnson can forge a new power in Hollywood.
"He's going with the intent of building something long-term, that can compete for a championship," a source with insight into the decision said. "He's doing this knowing that moves will be made this year and next year that will put them in position to start winning."
The Lakers were derided for giving Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million contract to close out his career, and mocked for retiring two jerseys in his honor in December. But these were acts of good faith, gestures that underscored the franchise's appreciation for its greatest stars—and a subliminal message to all potential Lakers stars: You'll never be taken for granted here.
As Buss said in February in discussing Bryant's jersey retirement ceremony, "I wanted to make sure that when the All-Star Game was here that his ... jerseys are up in the rafters to remind everybody of the legacy and the career that Kobe had."
For all the similarities between Bryant and James—both came to the NBA straight from high school, both idolized Michael Jordan—their relationship has been chilly, at best. From the moment James entered the NBA in 2003, Bryant held him at a distance. But Bryant quickly moved to embrace James on Sunday, tweeting, "Welcome to the family." Abdul-Jabbar also chimed in on Twitter, proclaiming, "I am sure the Lakernation is rejoicing." As if on cue, a video of Lakers fans throwing talc (an homage to James) quickly made the rounds online.
The Lakers are far from title contention. It's hard to say what the James era will look like, or whether he'll earn a place in the rafters alongside Magic and Kareem and Kobe and Shaq and Wilt and Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. We do know he'll one day join them all in the Hall of Fame, where an entire wing could be dedicated to the Lakers alone.
Landing James at age 33 might not have the same historical impact as acquiring Abdul-Jabbar in his prime, or a young Shaq and a teenage Kobe in a single week in 1996. The payoff likely will not be as extensive or spectacular. And yet the symbolic value is incalculable.
LeBron wins and inspires and uplifts. He makes his teammates look good. Where he goes, others follow. Despite widespread rumors that he'd never join the Lakers without a second star, James made the leap—secure in the belief that he and Magic, Hollywood's new power couple, with their combined charisma, can build from here.
Can they build a contender by spring? Next summer? Can they raise a 17th banner before LeBron begins to fade? Can they raise the next generation of Lakers stars before he retires?
These are questions no one can answer with confidence—except perhaps LeBron and Magic, Lakers Exceptionalism personified.