The first two occasions when LeBron James switched teams, he did so with the pieces either already in place or on the way to create a title contender.
This time is different.
In making his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, James showed he’s willing to take the long view – something that has gone against his win-now ethos during the prime of his career.
LeBron is no closer to beating the Golden State Warriors today than he was last month after the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the NBA Finals. He isn’t coming into a team with star talent already on the roster, nor does he appear to be bringing along anyone of his ilk to offer him support.
By and large, what James has around him is a bunch of young, inexperienced players and spare, discarded parts. He just barely carried a similar cast of characters through a weak Eastern Conference field before being dismantled in the Finals, and better weather, a new time zone and the Lakers mystique isn’t magically changing that outcome now.
James knows this. A man who wears a hat with the words ‘There is No Magic Pill’ doesn’t suffer from delusions of grandeur.
The Lakers are not yet a finished product and they might not be for another year at least. But that’s where the appeal of Magic Johnson likely drew James. The same legendary vision LeBron and Magic share as players will benefit them as team-builders with this DIY project.
It’s certainly a project, but the tools are there: a young core that can either continue to be developed or used in a trade for another star, significant cap space on the horizon and the lure of Lakers exceptionalism, which James just added extra juice to.
It wasn’t enough to land Paul George, who despite being a Southern California native and having already expressed a desire to don purple and gold, chose to stay in the friendly confines of Oklahoma City and re-up with the Thunder.
But Kawhi Leonard remains very much in play, whether the Lakers want to push their chips into the middle now and trade for the San Antonio Spurs star, or opt for the more prudent route and wait until he hits free agency next summer.
And regardless of Leonard’s fate, a loaded 2019 free agency class – potentially featuring game-changers like Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson – means the Lakers can throw multiple darts at the board and hope one or more stick.
Maybe LeBron’s sidekicks arrive through free agency or perhaps they come via trades, but either way the Lakers have flexibility that James doesn’t appear to want to compromise. It’s why he surprisingly agreed to a four-year deal with a player option for the third season – an eternity in LeBron’s timeline.
After inking one-plus-one or two-plus-one deals during his second stay with the Cavaliers, James is affording the Lakers a luxury that Cleveland’s front office never were. Whereas the Cavaliers were forced to exhaust their assets in the name of winning now, the Lakers can take their time in forming a championship contender that is built to last.
None of this is a foregone conclusion though. There will be a honeymoon stage in which James puts on a brave face and endures a relatively mediocre campaign, but at 33, he doesn’t have throwaway seasons at his disposal, even if he remains close to his peak.
At some point, the Lakers will have to deliver a team LeBron can compete with, while he’ll have to deliver a ring.
That’s just the level of expectation when you get a marriage of arguably the best player ever and arguably the most iconic franchise in all of teams sports.
The stopwatch has been replaced with an hourglass, but the sands of time continue to fall.
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