LeBron James' basketball life got a whole lot easier and a whole lot more stressful Saturday.
The reported acquisition of Anthony Davis by the Lakers means James will be paired with one of the game's best players. And when you have two top five players on the same roster, that automatically makes you NBA title contenders before we even hit free agency. The Lakers gave up a haul—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three future first round draft picks, including this year’s No. 4 selection—but it was totally worth it. In the process, they absolutely changed their expectations for the 2019-20 NBA campaign after missing the playoffs this past season. Oddsmakers have installed Los Angeles as the favorites to win it all next year.
It also means LeBron enters next season with more pressure on him than ever before.
We can argue all day about the pressure LeBron felt taking his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, espcially after their idiotic proclamation that they were going to deliver not one, not two, not three...but seven titles to Heat fans. And you can counter me that LeBron’s decision to go back home in the summer of 2014 and attempt to carry the Cavs to a championship was the heaviest load he carried of his career. But I’m not buying it.
Expectations on The King will forever be through the roof because when you’re arguably the GOAT, it just comes with the territory. Make all the right moves all the time and sink all the big buckets otherwise get crucified and called inferior to Michael Jordan. But things inevitably get magnified when you’re a living legend and the leader of the league’s most glamorous franchise that hasn’t sniffed the postseason in six seasons. Having won 16 NBA championships, making the playoffs doesn’t really do it for Lakers fans. Then again, the franchise has proven to be so laughably dysfunctional that Lakers Nation probably needs to chill just a little.
LeBron sets the tone and he needs to deliver when it matters most. He can’t complain about the talent around him. He can’t say he wasn’t given enough help. He can’t point to a dynasty standing in his way.
Signing LeBron last summer was supposed to usher in a new era of Showtime, but thanks to a roster that was more flawed than many initially believed and LeBron’s first severe injury of his career, it didn’t work out that way, of course. The 2019-20 season is going to be different—it has to be—now that the Lakers got one of the league’s most dynamic players to be LeBron’s de-facto running mate. And while there are more moves to be made considering the Lakers could have potentially $27-32 million in remaining cap space to throw around in free agency, the Lakers are significantly more potent and dangerous than they were Friday. And in a Western Conference that appears to be wide open after the Warriors were decimated by devastating injuries in the NBA Finals, it feels like it's the Lakers to lose and LeBron's legacy in Los Angeles is officially on the line.
Of course we’re writing this way before free agency plays out across the NBA and the power dynamic of the league is further focused, but only a fool would argue that the window for LeBron and the Lakers to make a run at a title and truly capitalize on his talents before his game starts significantly deteriorating, wasn’t opened a little wider Saturday. Entering his age 34 season, the time is now for LeBron because he’s past his prime—historically, you can look at just about every NBA superstar and notice how their efficiency and peak effectiveness declines after their age 32 season. In his age 33 season this past year, we finally saw the superhero in basketball shorts known as LeBron James look vulnerable when he couldn’t single-handedly carry the Lakers to the postseason. Now he has a sidekick who also wears a cape. And he ain’t Robin.
Off the bat, the deal feels fair to both sides. The Lakers now have two of the top five players in the game while the Pelicans got a damn good haul—and when you're giving up a superstar of Davis’ caliber of course you demand a ransom. While Ingram still doesn't do anything great, his ceiling remains high and we saw glimpses of a player on the verge of taking it to a new level this past season. Ball has just as much upside in his game as he has holes and, as everyone will point out, he’ll probably benefit from leaving home (Southern California) for the first time in his life. Hart is the kind of young role player that every team would love to have. And of course giving up three first round picks means the Lakers heavily mortgaged the future for an immediate return. But you do that to pair up superstars because we all know it’s a star driven league.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans, who obviously have the No. 1 pick in Thursday's draft, will be a fun team to watch with these additions. Zion Williamson will join Ingram, Ball, Hart, and possibly the No. 4 selection in the draft. Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin still has more moves to make and if he can somehow acquire an All-Star caliber vet then New Orleans will easily become one of the most intriguing and exciting teams to watch next season. We’ll be watching way more Pelicans games on League Pass this upcoming season, guaranteed.
No Pelinka 😂 pic.twitter.com/VcnQMSNbm3— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) June 15, 2019
Maybe the real winner of this trade is Rich Paul, LeBron and AD's influential agent who got destroyed this past winter when he declared Davis' desire to leave New Orleans. Then he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated this past week. Then he helped deliver AD to the place that was always speculated to be his desired destination: the Lakers.
But the pressure’s all on LeBron now. The Lakers are his team—not AD’s. Maybe it'll be Davis' down the line should he sign an extension as is widely believed, but LeBron sets the tone and he needs to deliver when it matters most. He can’t low-key complain about the talent around him. He can’t point to a dynasty standing in his way. If he’s as serious about his basketball legacy as we’re led to believe, and with Father Time rapidly ticking, then the 2019-20 NBA season is NBA Finals or bust for the Lakers. Los Angeles just massively upgraded their roster with the acquisition of the most dynamic player LeBron has ever been paired with. The Western Conference will no longer be owned by the Warriors. LeBron’s gotta land Los Angeles on the game’s biggest stage or the hate will be relentless and the questions about whether he cares about basketball as much will only grow louder.
When James announced his decision to sign with the Lakers last summer, it was widely believed that his family and business ventures had a lot to do with departing for Los Angeles. That narrative gained more steam as the Lakers bombed yet new episodes of The Shop kept debuting and Space Jam 2 updates kept dropping. Then LeBron was pictured walking into Staples Center with a glass of wine one night while injured before he missed the Lakers final six games of the season when there was nothing left to play for.
As long as he and AD stay healthy—no guarantee given AD’s track record and LeBron’s age—the Lakers figure to be a beast. But No. 23 will shoulder pressure like never before because the window to win won't stay open long and the expectations have never been higher.