Most Los Angeles Lakers fans, it would seem, instinctively dislike LeBron James. Whenever his name is brought up in Lakers free agency rumors, there is a push back against the idea. Almost as though the thought of him in a Lakers uniform is somehow offensive.
It’s not that surprising, really. I get it. For years, the NBA was dominated by the James vs. Kobe Bryant debate. Which one is better? Does James’ physical skill outweigh Bryant’s mental toughness? More often than not, the discussion became less than civil.
It was only natural. Bryant is arguably the greatest Laker ever, eventually spending two decades in Los Angeles. An entire generation – my generation – grew up alongside him. His milestones echoed our own as we transitioned from teenagers into adulthood.
It was nearly impossible not root for him, to become wrapped up in the cult of the Black Mamba. After all, defending Bryant was akin to defending ourselves.
Yet, as often happens, lifting up Bryant meant simultaneously denigrating James. Right or wrong, he was the villain trying to usurp Bryant’s throne, and that couldn’t be allowed. If the NBA was going to crown a new King, Lakers fans weren’t going to let it happen without a fight.
When James took his talents to South Beach, it was seen as proof that he wasn’t on Bryant’s level. He was looking for the easy way out, teaming up with other superstars in a weak Eastern Conference so he could coast to one Finals appearance after another.
Even his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers (cue Skylar Grey) wasn’t enough to put him into the good graces of Lakers fans, as Cleveland had a new version of the Big Three concept planned for James. Despite his talent, it was simply too easy for Jameshim.
Bryant always looked as though he was waging a war against human limitations, every night relentlessly pounding away to mine every ounce of basketball talent from his soul. He was remarkable in an obsessive way.
James, on the other hand, so physically gifted, rarely looks like he has to try all that hard. He glides over the court, moving with a swiftness and agility that should be impossible with his muscled frame. Two of the greatest ever, but Bryant would always have the heart of Los Angeles, and that meant James would be the villain.
Nothing, not even an Ohio homecoming, could thaw the ice.
Fast forward to today, and James is back in Cleveland with three NBA championships on his resume (two in Miami, one in Cleveland).
He’s hitting free agency this summer, and the Lakers are rumored to be one of his possible destinations. The old foe, who many still harbor resentment for, could be donning purple and gold as soon as next summer, leaving fans feeling conflicted, at best.
And really, it shouldn’t come down to whether or not James signs with the Lakers next summer. Regardless of where James lands, it’s time, finally, to move past the hate. The James vs. Bryant war is long over, if it ever really existed at all.
The reality is that, as polarizing as he can be, there is no denying James’ talent. He’s a tremendous player, and to miss out on that as a result of blind hate, well, that’s a shame.
Besides, if James does make the leap, he could very well be the key to pulling the Lakers out of the abyss. If he really is willing to come to Los Angeles, and not head to Houston, where his banana boat pal Chris Paul now resides, he would instantly turn the Lakers into a contender.
Los Angeles would jump to the top of the list for nearly every free agent available. The Lakers have found over the past few years that they can’t sell players on enjoying the weather and lifestyle that Hollywood offers anymore. Winning is what matters most, then everything else comes after.
Imagine Magic Johnson being able to sell free agents on both. Win on the brightest stage of them all while enjoying all that Los Angeles has to offer. Players would once again be lining up to take discounts to run the floor with James in the City of Angels.
Perhaps, James could even lure wayward son Paul George back to his Southern California roots. With James and George, plus a few of the team’s young pieces held over, the Lakers would jump back into the contention in the Western Conference.
Finally, the spotlight would truly be back on the Lakers.
There would be concerns, of course. At this stage, James is showing no signs of slowing down, but he is only weeks away from turning 33, and as the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated.
James would also need a team that is ready to win now, and that isn’t the stage that the Lakers are at. Would he require that young players like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and others be jettisoned for win-now pieces? And if so, where does that leave the Lakers when James begins to inevitably decline?
Furthermore, how much power would James really have? Since returning to Cleveland, there have been questions regarding how much say he has in personnel moves. Is that a road the Lakers, and specifically, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, want to travel?
Still, those concerns, while valid, are not deal-breakers. Those rough waters are worth navigating when the final destination is a Lakers team, led by James, back in the playoff mix.
Of course, despite the persistent rumors, James coming to the Lakers is far from a sure thing. He will have better options to win elsewhere, and leaving Cleveland for the second time would be a difficult choice to make.
Bryant’s jersey is being retired in a few days, and it will forever hang as a reminder of how the city loves its stars. James will certainly see it when Los Angeles hosts the All-Star game in February, and he will have a moment to consider what it would be like playing under those bright lights every night.
Should he decide the Lakers aren’t for him, fans can, and should, still appreciate the talent that he brought to the league. Father Time is indeed undefeated, and someday the opportunity to enjoy James’ brilliance will be gone.
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