U.S. Markets closed

The Lakers Are the Most LeBron James Team Yet

Nathaniel Friedman
Nathaniel Friedman on the creative possibilities LeBron has created for himself throughout his career.

LeBron James can do whatever he wants. This offseason, there was rampant speculation that James would form a new super-team to challenge the Warriors. This made sense insofar as superstars are supposed to play for championships. Instead, James chose to sign with the Lakers, where he will mentor a talented young team, spend more time with his family, pursue off-court interests, and probably not contend in the immediate future. It’s a move James is only able to get away with because he’s currently so beloved—and because it’s unclear anyone can beat Golden State for the time being.

As a career choice, it also could not depart more sharply from the template set by Michael Jordan. Once Jordan started winning, he kept winning, and only stopped because he walked away from the game at the height of his powers. His competitive drive was unmatched, its malignancy taken as proof of sincerity—an equation that has been to farcical extremes in the case of Kobe Bryant. If he failed to empathize with his less-talented teammates, it was because he held himself to an excruciatingly high standard, not because he was a warped human being. (Or so the argument goes.) Jordan reached his zenith and stayed there. All that mattered was the tireless pursuit of RINGZ. Anything else was a distraction, a diversion, or an inexcusable compromise. It was that simple.

LeBron James has eagerly, often intentionally, contradicted this model. His early eschewal of “killer instinct” in favor of shrewd decision-making signaled a desire to chase Jordan’s GOAT status on his own terms (a lesson that was thoroughly lost on Bryant). The decision to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, which supposedly undercut James’s alpha status and every single sports platitude about “earning it,” was informed by Jordan’s example. His return to Cleveland picked up the prophetic “Chosen One” storyline right where he’d left it, and the subsequent title was so emotional, so singular, that it made Jordan’s sheer accumulation look dispassionate.

Where Jordan hewed to cliché, James reimagines conventional wisdom. This is obviously in part just a function of who he is. You get the sense that the relentlessly creative James is uncomfortable with sameness, if not bored by it. His capacity for original thinking is what makes him prize originality. It’s hard to imagine James, who makes each possession unique, having a one-note career. The twists and turns, the sheer range of possibilities, and the lack of a central theme are pure LeBron James. He wouldn’t follow a straightforward or repetitive path, much less one already trodden by Jordan and all the imitators who have followed him. It’s also worth mentioning that the Warriors—perhaps the greatest team of all time, and a far greater challenge than anything Jordan had to go up against—have practically forced him to find a new way to parse out his legacy.

But it’s rarely discussed just how much of a debt James’s self-invention owes to Jordan. As simple as Jordan’s legacy is, there’s also a rhetorical flair to it. He doesn’t have more titles than Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also boasts six. The way Jordan went about getting his, though, wasn’t just single-minded—it was decisive in a way that left an indelible imprint on the sport. Nike and other marketing forces took care of the real-time mythologizing. But it was the man himself who set the tone and saw it through. Jordan didn’t just win—he recast winning in his own image. When you factor in his two retirements, it’s hard to argue that Jordan was simply some indomitable force set into motion. He wasn’t a principle realized—he was someone clearly acting on principle.

In this way, these Lakers may be the most quintessentially LeBron James team yet. That they don’t quite add up speaks not to their insufficiency but to the sense of possibility around them.

It’s wrong to say that Jordan lacked imagination or originality. The sheer degree to which Jordan has been mimicked makes what he accomplished seem perfunctory. There are huge differences in how Jordan and James see the game and themselves; in all ways, James is certainly more varied and consistently surprising than Jordan. But these stylistic differences mask the ways in which James has emulated Jordan’s example. The point isn’t to be Michael Jordan. Corny as it sounds, it’s about being yourself as much as Jordan was. Your game, your personality, and how you move through the world can be a seamless whole—provided you’re up to the challenge of upholding this unity.

For now, the 2018-19 Lakers are a stubborn, bottomless question mark. No one expects them to be a disaster—with LeBron James in tow, that’s just not going to happen. But even after the preseason, exactly how it shakes out is anyone’s guess. There’s no way of predicting how much Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma will improve, or even how they will develop. Rondo, Stephenson, McGee, and Beasley are all consummate wildcards, and not just because of their personalities. You could also see their respective skill sets going in any number of possible directions. There’s been talk of positionless basketball, getting out in transition, and staunch defense. With only a short preseason under their belt, the Lakers are at the moment undefined and inconclusive.

In this way, these Lakers may be the most quintessentially LeBron James team yet. That they don’t quite add up speaks not to their insufficiency but to the sense of possibility around them. James has the opportunity to give this squad form, game by game, possession by possession. They can be an extension of his imagination—not a blank canvas so much as the tools to realize an ever-shifting vision that may not necessarily have titles as the sole priority. The Lakers haven’t transcended winning and losing. But to the extent that James has, or is at least temporarily allowed to behave like he has, they’re as much a workshop for ideas and experimentation as they are a competitive basketball team.

James will have to start winning titles again at some point. He also likely isn’t looking to relocate again, which means he must think the Lakers can contend sooner rather than later, particularly if KD decides to leave the Warriors in 2019. If nothing else, LeBron’s presence alone makes this a very reasonable prediction. But between the potential this team has and the possibility that another marquee player could end up in Los Angeles down the line, there are other reasons to be sanguine about this franchise. This season, though, is a gimme for LeBron. There’s no pressure on him, no expectations other than that he keeps himself entertained—which, in turn, means entertaining us.