LeBron James plus Los Angeles equals circus. That math is indisputable, but for the first time in at least a decade, all the attention we'll pay to James in 2018-19 won't come with the added burden of pressure.
That's because James' Los Angeles Lakers aren't positioned to reach the NBA Finals. Sure, they're the Lakers, a team whose fanbase is a repository for irrational exuberance. But any serious analysis of the roster and conference outlook produces a clear conclusion: The Lakers aren't a contender.
This is new and more than a little odd for James, who represented the East in the last eight NBA Finals, and whose entire prime has been one long championship-or-bust chase.
By signing a four-year deal with L.A. (technically three and a player option), James gave the Lakers a pass. They don't have to forge a title-winner or risk losing their best player, which isn't something you could have said about the Cleveland Cavaliers over the last four seasons. James' short-term contracts plagued the Cavs, leading to suboptimal roster moves and nonstop focus on short-term success at the expense of the future.
It worked, as Cleveland reached the Finals four times in a row, but it was tense, and it was difficult. Every season was a do-or-die enterprise because James was never guaranteed to stick around for another one.
Now, the Lakers don't have to scramble in February if they aren't sitting atop the West. In fact, when they're not ranked in the conference's top four or five, that'll be the expectation—not a cause for panic.
Just look at the roster. There's simply not enough talent to compete with the West's top tier. In fact, it'd be a mistake to assume the Lakers are certain to make the playoffs. They're not better than the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Ditto for the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. If we get down to the level occupied by the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets, there's room for debate.
But nobody fancies those teams as serious Finals entrants, let alone championship threats.
Perhaps the kids will get better. Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart could develop with James aboard. But should they be trusted to perform in a playoff series against the Jazz's suffocating defense? And that's to say nothing of how they'd fare against the true elites in Golden State and Houston. Even if titles are in the future for this core, that level of success is at least a few years of hard lessons and playoff eliminations away.
As for Los Angeles' post-LeBron signings, well...if you're persuaded Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley are helping James reach the promised land, I've got a bridge to sell you.
Everything suggests the emphasis in Los Angeles is not on the upcoming season, which feels more and more like a stopgap until the summer of 2019 when, theoretically, the Lakers will build the real roster around James.
In approaching things this patiently, the Lakers have exchanged pressure for danger.
We start dying the minute we're born. Bleak? For sure. But this is the mindset with which teams must approach their aging stars' careers. The end is always encroaching. Father Time is everyone's daddy—even players as great as James.
It's always been a bad bet to peg the current season as the one in which James finally falls off...but it gets a little better every year.
L.A. is effectively punting on what may be the last season of James' prime. It'll end someday; we know that because it ends someday for everyone. The Lakers, though, seem to be comfortable saying age-35 LeBron (he's 33 now, but will reach 35 midway through the 2019-20 season) is going to be just as good as the version we have now. If we're going to assume this about anyone, maybe James is the guy. He's bucked aging trends and sustained his elite play despite extreme mileage building up.
The fact remains that the aging trajectory only trends one way. James is going to decline, and it is more likely to happen with every second, minute, hour, day, week, month and season that passes.
Perhaps the Lakers aren't worried about this because they know they'll land a younger superstar in 2019, one who'll allow a diminished James to slip into a lesser role. Guys of James' ilk don't readily recede into the background, though. Late-career Michael Jordan hijacked the Washington Wizards, and Kobe Bryant sabotaged the Lakers during his final years, delaying a rebuild and stunting the growth of younger players.
Maybe James is more Tim Duncan than Jordan or Bryant, in which case he might be willing to cede the spotlight and contribute from the periphery. If that's true, the Lakers' gamble is less risky.
From their perspective, maybe this trial season will serve a valuable purpose. They can get James reps at center, let the kids mature and find out for certain which ones will still belong when the great re-tooling of 2019 takes place. It seems like James is cool with the approach, considering he was consulted on L.A.'s veteran signings.
The alternative is that he's a terrible judge of talent and is deluded about how much Rondo, Stephenson and friends actually impact winning. Jury's still out on that one.
Taking a year off and waiting for the Warriors and Rockets to come back to Earth wouldn't be the worst idea under normal circumstances. But is James, hanging onto the end of his prime, really in a position to wait on anything?
Tomorrow Isn't Promised
It's hard to remember the last time we saw the league's best player willingly adopt anything but a win-now approach toward the end of his career. Usually, the reverse happens: Aging stars take whatever they've got left to a winning situation in hopes of grabbing one last shot at success, often sacrificing money and ego to do it.
What's happening in L.A. is a strange inversion of that norm—one complicated by loads of uncertainty.
How will James perform knowing his team cannot win a title? Even more intriguing, what if the Lakers get off to a hot start accompanied by a serious injury or personnel move that disrupts the West's upper tier? Would the Lakers have to then pivot, suddenly reintroducing immense pressure and expectations to a roster that wasn't expecting anything of the sort?
James chose the Lakers with his future in mind, but he's presently the league's best player.
You never know when it's over, and the Lakers are risking everything by assuming the end of James' reign won't come until at least 2020.