The ball may have stopped rolling, but in the constantly modernizing NBA, there is never truly an offseason. From the hallowed courts of Dyckman Park to the suits of the negotiating table, the league’s notable names have been active this summer. Mario Hezonja signed a one-year contract with the Knicks. Pat Connaughton dried the ink on a deal with the rising Milwaukee Bucks. Now hold your breath, because the New Orleans Pelicans just selected Tony Carr with the 51st pick! And oh wait, there was also that guy that moved out West….
In an ironically minimalistic Twitter note, Klutch Sports, representing the man himself, briefly announced with non–Comic Sans font (This is all your fault, Gilbert) that the one and only LeBron James had signed a four-year, 154 million–dollar contract with the Los Angeles Lakers (Twitter, @KlutchSports, 07.02.18). Although the move was one that can’t come as all too surprising (“I heard he has two houses in LA” has been the trite, awkward watercooler talk at your office for months now), it is one that has monumental impact on the present and future of the league. So much so that I have retreated from my temporary Misc hiatus, taking a break from my search for a good pickup game in Argentina, to geek out over this Summer of LeBron.
Like any great modern romance, the reality of LeBron and the Lakers started with a look. Except this was no subtle smirk or passing glance in the hallway, but rather a blazing, incredulous glare, at who else but class clown JR Smith. Rewind to Game One of this past NBA Finals. Score tied, a few seconds left on the clock, Cavs vet George Hill stepped up to the charity stripe for his second attempt. Anxiety pulsating through his veins, or maybe just distraction, thinking about what would be for dinner later, Hill bricked the free throw. Jumping high into the air, the athletic Smith grabbed the rebound, and then—didn’t know what to do with it. Anxiety pulsating through his veins, or maybe just distraction, thinking about where he’d be getting high later, Smith frantically dribbled out to midcourt, effectively running out the clock. Standing nearby in helpless disgust, the aforementioned LeBron pointed vigorously in the right direction, like a sideline-spectating dad telling his kid he’s the only one running the wrong way on the soccer field.
Breakups are hard. And even more so in the NBA, where no superstar (especially one skipping town for a younger, more attractive team) has effectively mastered the art of saying goodbye. In the process of formulating an inherently imperfect exit, visual testaments speak volumes, and luckily for LeBron, this last one played out in his favor. Contrasted with the egocentric self-servitude of “The Decision,” the final image of the latest Cleveland LeBron is one of a man irked and frustrated, futilely grinding against the grain, trying to shepherd a flock of journeymen to a hopelessly improbable goal. Eleven years with the Cavs, and one promised championship delivered, the reality of the situation became painfully clear: This time around, it’s not me, it’s you.
The basketball world understood. There would be no jersey burning, but instead outrage in the opposing sense—the media up in arms at the mere sight of a brand new LeBron mural defaced in downtown LA by some lingering contrarian. In Summer 2018, fan frustration gave way to a newfound appreciation of brilliance. There are endless musings to be had on the topic: Maybe LeBron purposely had the Cavs trade for Clarkson and Nance to clear up Laker cap space…did anyone else notice his contract expires the year his son could join the NBA…what exactly was the King telling Lonzo on the court in the December, with his jersey over his mouth? In a move that is an act of brilliance all by itself, LeBron took a back seat in his own free agency, keeping comments minimal and shuffling of announcing duties to his associates, leaving room for the fans themselves to be the ones to speak on his behalf.
In his first public appearance as a member of his new team, LeBron pulled up to the NBA Summer League with emblazoned Lakers shorts, prompting a standing ovation from all fans in attendance. Prancing jovially around the sidelines, LeBron dapped up new Cavs Head Coach Ty Lue, while also exchanging a moment with Lakers teammate Brandon Ingram, a lanky guard with gifted scoring ability, someone who LeBron has tapped as capable of being the Pippin to his Jordan. Working from the basis of their young core, Magic Johnson & Co. have compiled a fascinating roster. Free agent signings of notable goofballs Lance Stephenson and Javale McGee, alongside the difficultly indifferent Rajon Rondo, all add immense talent to the roster, while also setting up a new challenge. Over the course of next season, LeBron will set out to unlock the potential trapped within troubled personalities and young demeanors. It’s a job suited only for a King.
Beyond basketball, LA offers LeBron a path to move into a new phase of his career—that of part player, part mogul. Hollywood productions in the works under James’ company SpringHill Entertainment read as long as your mom’s receipt at the grocery store, ranging from a three-part political docuseries to a remake of cult comedy “Space Jam.”
In the midst of a loud and hectic NBA summer, the star still stands above the rest. On the chessboard, it is now the King himself who is moving the pawns as he takes his first shot at being the one who can truly transcend the game.