LeBron James' decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers felt like it was about more than basketball.
It positioned him to expand a media empire and grow an already historic legacy. But there's still the small matter of hoops, and it's worth asking whether James' move actually improved his outlook on that front.
Will a new team, a new conference and the stability of a multiyear deal wind up providing a different experience than James endured last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers when he dragged a defense-free crew of coasters (who, notably, coasted because James did) to an improbable Finals berth? Or is he signing up for an even heavier load as he enters his age-34 season?
There are all sorts of ways to tackle this juxtaposition, but none wriggle free of the core problem: We're comparing a known commodity, last year's Cavs, with one we can only guess about. The 2018-19 Lakers haven't played together yet, and they're laden with developing talent, most of which is still in its formative stages.
Still, if only to get a more complete picture of what's ahead for James, we've got to try.
The Second Star
The NBA is increasingly about collecting stars and worrying about the rest of the roster later. It's the era of superteams, which makes a top-down analysis sensible. With the Cavs last year, Kevin Love was the clear No. 2 option, and he averaged 17.6 points and 9.3 boards per game while hitting 41.5 percent of his threes. Though not much of an asset on D, Love actually posted his highest ever true shooting percentage, 61.4 percent, while stretching the floor at center and contributing more than anyone but James to an offense that ranked fifth in the league.
Among Cavs who played at least 50 games, Love's box plus-minus and VORP of plus-1.3 and plus-1.4 trailed only James' figures in those catch-all categories. It's difficult to account for Love's quality decision-making, familiarity with James and the worth of a center who enables a five-out offense, but that's all worth something. It feels fair to say Love was even more valuable than his numbers.
Lonzo Ball is the most productive returning Laker. He produced a plus-1.7 box plus-minus and a matching plus-1.7 VORP as a rookie, albeit in only 52 games. Some would argue Kentavious Caldwell-Pope profiles as James' best sidekick. The 25-year-old shooting guard has been durable throughout his career, missing an average of just 4.4 contests per season. He shot a personal-best 38.3 percent from deep last year and plays excellent on-ball defense against both backcourt positions and all but the rangiest wings.
Maybe it's Brandon Ingram, though.
He surged after Jan. 1 last season, finishing his sophomore year with a 39.0 percent conversion rate from deep and several flashes of future stardom. Like Ball, Ingram has the draft pedigree that makes projecting great things easier, but unlike Ball, the 6'9" forward possesses a complete offensive game with ample room to grow. Ingram should be on everyone's short list of Most Improved Player candidates heading into 2018-19.
One thing that feels certain: Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley will not be in the conversation about James' top teammate. As measured by BPM and VORP, none of these vets outperformed Ball, Ingram or KCP last season. And we should expect L.A.'s youth to improve while the quartet of veterans trends the other way.
If Ball or Ingram make a leap, both could easily contribute at a higher level than Love did a year ago. Basically, the Lakers have multiple shots to identify a second star. They'll probably hit on at least one.
At least as far as we can project it, the Lakers seem to have more star power this year than the Cavs did in 2017-18.
Expanding the Search Terms
If we move past individual talent, where the Lakers seem to have an edge, we can blow up the picture a bit and analyze how each team compares on both ends.
The 2017-18 Cavaliers won 50 games to the Lakers' 35. Fortunately, we don't have to figure out if sliding James from one club to the other is worth 15 extra wins. Instead, we can look at point differential to see where these clubs' true talent actually resided last year.
Cleveland dramatically outperformed its net rating of plus-0.7. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Cavs won seven more games than they should have in 2017-18. That gets them down to a "deserved" 43 wins, which significantly narrows the gap between these two teams, particularly when you consider L.A.'s net rating of minus-1.2 indicated they should have won three more games. Now our win comparison, based on point differential from last year, is 43 to 38.
Defensively, the Lakers were better than the Cavs (who wasn't?) last season. L.A. ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, while the Cavs ranked 29th. On the other end, the team with James unsurprisingly scored with ease, as Cleveland checked in at No. 5 on offense, outstripping the Lakers' 23rd-place finish.
With James on board, we should expect the Lakers to vault into the top 10 on offense and slip on the other end, assuming James sets the same relaxed tone on defense. So if the Lakers hypothetically rank, say, seventh on offense and 20th on D, they'll probably wind up with a differential close to or better than the plus-0.7 Cleveland managed a year ago.
The Extra Stuff
What's chemistry worth? And did the 2017-18 Cavs even have any?
Typically, there'd be value in continuity. Last year's Cavaliers shook things up at the deadline (and even earlier by trading Kyrie Irving before training camp), but the key figures mostly stayed intact. James ran the show, Love chipped in however he could, and the rest of the roster pretty much spotted up and waited for open looks as the best player in the world orchestrated. Nobody played D, but even that was collectively understood.
No, Cleveland didn't always appear harmonious during James' second stint with the team, but at least everybody was clear on the pecking order and the interpersonal dynamics.
In L.A., James will have to start from scratch. Chances are, it'll be difficult at first to find an equilibrium with vets and up-and-comers vying for the same minutes. There's also uncertainty as to James' relationship with head coach Luke Walton, not to mention the hyperintense scrutiny the Lakers will be under. James has lived under a microscope for almost 20 years, but the media coverage in L.A. is something he's never experienced on a regular basis.
Will LaVar Ball pipe up? Will a slow start heat Walton's seat? Will James grow annoyed by the relative inexperience of so many of his key supporting players? All that and more could make things difficult for the Lakers, possibly resulting in less on-court success than they'd otherwise expect.
Still, James' time in Cleveland was fraught with difficult personal dynamics and, lest we forget, a contentious relationship with ownership. Maybe a fresh start in Los Angeles will minimize those issues.
Call It: Who's Better?
Even if we assume James takes a small step back in his 16th(!) NBA season, and even if we account for the increased difficulty of life in the West, it still seems reasonable to say this year's Lakers will be better than last year's Cavs.
Now, "better" is a tricky term here because it's highly unlikely the Lakers will reach the Finals. To do that, they'd have to win enough games to avoid the seventh or eighth seed (and certain first-round death). Even then, the West gauntlet figures to be significantly more arduous than the one James led the Cavs through last year.
This, then, is a bet that L.A.'s young talent will come together around James, produce at least one viable second star and, ultimately, yield a better net rating than the one the Cavs stumbled to a season ago. Framed that way, the bar's really not all that high. All the Lakers have to do is nudge up against a net rating of plus-1.0, which 13 teams managed in 2017-18.
Nothing's certain at this stage, but James seems capable of elevating a team to that level—especially one that wasn't that far from mediocrity without him.