I have not seen the film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, because I don't need to. A story about a collection of angry dinosaurs being let loose on an unsuspecting coastal population? Sorry, I'm living it here in Los Angeles, with the imminent arrival of Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and the rest of LeBron James' motley crew. Add those pieces to a Lakers team that's already had to shoulder the burden of LaVar Ball's not-so-subtle attempts to get the coach fired, and you have the NBA's own version of chaos theory in action. LeBron was so preoccupied with whether he could that he didn't stop to think if he should.
But chaos might as well be James' nickname at this point. From "The Decision" and the initial madness of the Heatles era to the return to Cleveland to the midseason reshuffling of the lineup to the Kyrie Irving trade to another midseason lineup jumble to his L.A. move, instability follows LeBron wherever he goes. One would think that can't be by design. Firing a coach midseason or executing make-or-break trades is not the optimal environment for winning championships. Somehow, though, LeBron has found himself exactly where he has wanted to be: the NBA Finals. Chalk that up to the less-than-stellar competition in the Eastern Conference if you wish, but making eight straight trips to the championship round is still mighty impressive.
The Lakers are shaping up to be a different kind of chaos, though. From a media and messaging standpoint, James has never had to contend with someone like LaVar Ball. If Lance, Rajon and JaVale are the uncontrollable forces of nature from Jurassic World, then LaVar is the T-Rex and we're all the sniveling little children trying to find a place to hide. "You don't give my son the best player in the game and don't think he gonna win no championships," Ball told TMZ Sports on July 3. This statement was notable for two reasons: One, it's something close to a guarantee that he believes a title is coming back to L.A.; two, it's shocking that LaVar said someone besides his son is the best player in the game.
LaVar's genius (if one wants to refer to it as such) is that he's able to court attention, manufacture drama and antagonize his enemies. But the Lakers have never needed help getting attention or creating intriguing storylines. They really don't need it now.
LeBron James is his own storyline. He has been since he came into the league at 18 years of age. What could really qualify as a distraction to a player who has never spent a single day of his NBA career outside of the spotlight? When pundits and reporters comment on everything you've said and done or not done, when you've been publicly called a savior and a traitor, how can you ever be truly rattled? Every outfit choice, every social media post and every public statement is dissected like a dead frog in high school biology class.
The team around James—agent Rich Paul, business manager Maverick Carter, etc.—stage-manages the drama. They limit the chaos that is intrinsic to life as the most famous athlete in America. Replacing David Blatt with Tyronn Lue in the middle of the 2015-16 regular season could have broken a different team, but those Cavs refocused, got to the Finals again and came back from a 3-1 deficit to become the only team in the last four years to break the Warriors. The year prior, the Cavs were almost totally remade—adding JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov in a series of blockbuster trades that were instrumental in forming the championship core in Cleveland. Irving's shocking exit from Cleveland shredded a team that, with an added piece or two, could have at least put up a fight against the Warriors this past season. These moves were accompanied by the usual chatter from the usual sources. In every case, the moves seemed to signal instability in the King's camp.
LeBron is certainly responsible for some of his own issues (how did the Kyrie thing get so out of hand that he felt it necessary to bounce?), but through trial and error, his camp has become better and better at squashing beef when necessary or at least suppressing the impact of it. Winning covers up for a lot, to be sure, but so does releasing a low-key statement to announce his second exit from Cleveland or offering a candid assessment of his desire to play with heady players during the Finals instead of outright naming guys who made mistakes.
If LeBron and Co. have become the firemen adept at putting out almost any blaze, LaVar is the pyromaniac ever happy to light fires in the first place. James has never had to deal with someone as willing to face him up and come after him as LaVar, who has shown on numerous occasions that he has no qualms about asserting himself. If a news cycle doesn't include a brazen LaVar hot take, he will find a way to speak one into existence. The last few months must have been frustrating for LaVar: The Lakers missed the playoffs (again), his other son LiAngelo failed to impress NBA scouts, the media is mostly ignoring the JBA and all eyes have been on the wild free-agent market.
Enter James to save LaVar's ego. Sure, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Lonzo gets something out of it—an elite basketball education at the feet of one of the greatest of all time—but his dad has really lucked out.
As LaVar's shtick becomes commonplace and repetitious, an antagonist for him to spar with needed to emerge. Luke Walton mostly refused to take the bait as LaVar fired off rhetorical rockets from the safety of Lithuania. The front office of Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka has better things to do than humor its point guard's dad's messy love of drama. Now, LeBron arrives and provides the heat magnet LaVar needs to further his mission of never not being on television. LeBron will be asked about Lonzo. If Lonzo doesn't get dealt to San Antonio this summer, reporters will still ask if he's going before the trade deadline. Every game will be a litmus test of the Ball-James relationship, and every game will be a chance for LaVar to respond.
This summer, LeBron has found himself surrounded by some of the oddest characters in the NBA, with the mission of taking the clearance rack at Ballers "R" Us to the Finals. But his greatest challenge might be finding a way to control the narrative in another market, when that market is currently dominated by someone who isn't even an athlete. If there is anyone in the NBA who can deflect and de-emphasize the LaVar Effect, it's LeBron James, but to borrow a quote, life finds a way. And so does LaVar Ball.