30 at 30 Lists #26: Feelings About LeBron Joining the Lakers

In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.

On July 1, news broke that LeBron James was joining the Los Angeles Lakers.  More than a month later I am still processing what this means for my favorite franchise. In the meantime, a lot of people have asked me how I feel about LeBron becoming a Laker. So with apologies to Drake, I figured why not get in my feelings about LeBron. Without further ado, here are 30 ways I am feeling about LeBron heading to L.A.

1. Excited
Obviously. This is the Lakers’ biggest free agent signing since they inked a 24-year-old Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 1996. O’Neal was coming off four straight all-star selections to begin his career and went on to lead the Lakers to three titles. Although LeBron will turn 34 in December, he has shown no signs of slowing down yet. Last season was year 15 in the NBA, yet LeBron played in all 82 games and averaged a league high 36.9 minutes per game en route to an 8th straight NBA Finals appearance. 

2. Ecstatic
OK, excited is an understatement. The best player in the league joined my team. The 2018-19 season cannot tip off soon enough!

3. Celebratory 
The Lakers unveiled new Nike uniforms recently, but as nice as a #23 jersey would look, I liked this T-shirt courtesy of @purehoop and Cotton Bureau even more. So I bought one for myself as an early birthday gift. 

4. Surprised
Even amid rumors that had been floating for months that LeBron to the Lakers was a likely possibility, I never fully believed it. It seemed too good to be true.

5. Spoiled
For Laker-haters (and there are plenty of them), LeBron’s decision to join the purple (or forum blue) and gold only added fuel to the fire. I get it. I hate the Yankees. I love the Lakers. I know they are similarly rich franchises with a history of scoring the best players in the game. They’re easily hatable. It just so happens that I was raised a Lakers fan. It’s the one team most of my family actually agrees on. Still, I understand the vitriol coming from other fan bases. From birth until I was out of college, playoffs were taken for granted as a Lakers fan. They only missed the postseason twice from the time I was born in 1984 through 2013. They have missed the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, giving me and Lakers fans a harsh dose of reality—the playoffs should be an accomplishment and not taken for granted. Then, voila! We get LeBron James, who has played in the past 8 NBA Finals and has not played for a team that missed the postseason since 2005. 

6. Wistful
Nowadays everyone debates Michael Jordan vs. LeBron. Ten years ago, however, MJ’s G.O.A.T. status was relatively unquestioned. Instead, the great NBA debate of 2008 was Kobe vs. LeBron. As a Lakers fan, I was always team Kobe, but I wrote this favorable LeBron article after he led his Cavs to victory in a head-to-head showdown with Kobe’s Lakers in January 2008. Of course, I ended up switching course and voting for Kobe for 2008 MVP. As fate would have it, LeBron vs. Kobe never lived up to the hype/hope that it would equal the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson rivalry of the 80s. From the time LeBron entered the league in 2003 until the time Kobe retired 2016, there were only two NBA Finals (2005 and 2006) that featured neither LeBron nor Kobe. Yet somehow, despite being opposite conferences the entire time, they never met in the Finals.

7. Ready
Since I already admitted to feeling spoiled, I feel safe to move on to saying that I am so ready for the Lakers to be competitive again. The past five years have been dark for Lakers fans. I suppose the highlight was Kobe Bryant’s 60-point performance in his last game before retirement in an otherwise meaningless regular season game against Utah. The Western Conference is going to be loaded this season. Only three games separated the third-seeded Portland Trailblazers and the Denver Nuggets, who missed the playoffs. So there is no guarantee that the Lakers will make the playoffs, but with LeBron in town, playoffs are absolutely the expectation for this coming season…and then hopefully a championship in the next few years.

8. Optimistic
Realistically, I do not think the Lakers are a championship contender this season. I expect a playoff berth and would consider a first round series win as a successful season for this team as it is currently constructed. However, LeBron James has taken lesser teams to the NBA Finals (last year’s Cavaliers team as well as the 2007 edition come to mind), and he has never lost a first round playoff series. So, while I expect an early round exit this season, I would not be shocked if LeBron and the Lakers become legitimate title contenders in the very near future.

9. Encouraged
The biggest reason I am encouraged about the direction of the Lakers is that they did not mortgage their future in acquiring LeBron. Barring a major trade, the Lakers will have the salary cap flexibility to add another superstar to the fold next offseason. The biggest name out there is Kawhi Leonard, who has stated his desire to play in Los Angeles. The former San Antonio Spurs star, who earned my vote for the 2017 MVP Award, was traded last month to the Toronto Raptors but will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Klay Thompson is another potential target for the Lakers if Kawhi does not pan out. While a healthy Kawhi would be the top prize, luring Thompson to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a Laker would be a double whammy for the Lakers. Not only would L.A. be adding a top-20 talent, they’d also be taking him away from reigning two-time champion Golden State Warriors.

10. Patient
Speaking of the Warriors, I am feeling patient, waiting for them to stumble. All good things must come to an end, and that will be true of the Warriors dynasty, too. It’s just a matter of when and what will cause it to fall. The good news for Lakers fans is that LeBron signed a four-year contract (with a player option after year three), so the Lakers do not have to throw all of their eggs into one basket. The overwhelming consensus is that the 2019 title is Golden State’s to lose, but the Lakers have a vision for the future, and they are building for championships in 2020 and beyond.

11. Concerned
I am patient, but I am also a little concerned about LeBron’s age and health. As I mentioned under point number one, LeBron led the league in minutes last year at age 33. His playoff success has meant that he has played 239 career postseason games, which is essentially an extra three seasons worth of mileage on his legs. Only twice in his career has he played in less than 70 regular season games. Human nature tells us that his body has to slow down at some point, but LeBron is far from the average human, and he has not showed signs of slowing down yet. So I’m concerned that all four years of LeBron as a Laker may not be prime LeBron, but it would not shock me if he defies father time either.

12. Intrigued
Ultimately, whether the Lakers can become a championship franchise with LeBron may be less about what LeBron can do and more about how much the young homegrown talent can improve. In Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, the Lakers have a pair of number two overall picks from the past two years that have shown flashes of greatness, but they have also been inconsistent and injured. If one or both can make the leap to become an all-star level talent, which is what you hope for from a number two overall selection, the Lakers will be primed to compete now and in the future. The Lakers also hit big with a pair of late first round draft picks in 2017 that they acquired via trade. Kyle Kuzma, the 27th overall selection, was the 2017 Summer League MVP and a 2017-18 All Rookie first-team selection. Meanwhile, the 30th overall selection, Josh Hart, started 23 games last season and showed flashes of an improved game en route to being named the 2018 Summer League MVP. Additionally, the Lakers made me a happy man by drafting Michigan big man Moe Wagner in the first round this past June. They also added Kansas sharpshooter 
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in the second round, giving the Lakers a formidable young core of talented players with a lot of upside.

13. Disappointed
While I loved the Lakers decision not to part ways with Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, or Hart, I was disappointed that they did not re-sign Julius Randle and, to a lesser extent, Brook Lopez. Randle was a homegrown talent, the number 7 overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. Randle broke his leg in his NBA debut, causing him to miss the entire 2014-15 season, but he only missed 9 games total in the three seasons since then. Last year, Randle had his best season yet, appearing in all 82 games for the Lakers while averaging career highs in points (16.1) and field goal percentage (55.8). His scoring was tied for the team lead, and he also led the Lakers with 8.0 rebounds per game. I read that Randle preferred to stay with the Lakers, but once they signed LeBron, it was clear his role would be diminished. Still, I liked the fight I saw in Randle last season. He played with a ferociousness when attacking the rim that made me think he could be more than a stats on a bad team player. Unfortunately, he signed a two-year, $17.71 million deal with New Orleans. And Brook Lopez signed a one-year, $3.382 million deal with Milwaukee. I thought Lopez as a stretch five would have worked well to space the floor with LeBron as a creator of the dribble. Alas, that is not the direction the Lakers chose to go.

14. Confused
Instead, the Lakers had me scratching my head with their other free agent signings. They signed Rajon Rondo, who will be playing for his sixth team in the past 6 years, for $9 million. They signed Shaqtin’ a Fool Hall of Famer JaVale McGee. They also added Lance Stephenson, who famously blew in LeBron James’ ear during a playoff game, and a former number two overall pick, Michael Beasley, who is on his seventh team in 11 seasons. The silver lining is that all of the players were signed to one year deals, which allows the Lakers to maintain the aforementioned salary cap flexibility for the summer of 2019. In the meantime, the Lakers have been dubbed “The Meme Team” online for the cast of characters they chose to bring in along with LeBron.

15. Greedy
I mentioned before that I am glad the Lakers did not send a bunch of young stars away in a package deal to acquire Kawhi Leonard for the San Antonio Spurs. Having said that, I am feeling greedy. I want the Lakers to keep the young core intact and add Kawhi as a free agent this offseason. This is where the patience could pay off. If they wait and get Kawhi, suddenly they have a very formidable, versatile roster with veteran superstars and up and coming talent together.

16. Trepidatious
The last time I was this excited for a Lakers acquisition was in 2012 when they added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to join Kobe Bryant on a team that was only a couple years removed from winning a championship. The Sports Illustrated cover famously proclaimed “Now This is Going to be Fun,” and I thought it would be. It was a disaster. Nash struggled with injuries. Howard’s playfulness never clicked with Kobe’s Mamba mentality, and the team was swept in the first round of the playoffs. Acquiring LeBron to join this team is obviously an entirely different situation; I’m just trying not to get my hopes up too high so as not to be let down the way I was back in 2012-13. 

17. Embarrassed
A recent trend in sports has been unearthing things that current players said on social media back when they were young and before they were famous. I’m not famous, but I do regret some of my knee-jerk reactionary tweets from back in the day. For example, after LeBron announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach”  in 2010 to team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I tweeted the following:

It was a sentiment shared by a lot of sports fans and media personalities alike. Even a number of former players spoke out against LeBron’s decision. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a more nuanced approach. While I did feel bad for Cleveland fans, labeling LeBron as Pippen 2.0 was unfair. He proved in his four years in Miami and again upon his return to Cleveland that he was not only the best player on his team every step of the way. I do think he approaches the game differently than Kobe or MJ, but now I wonder if that is not necessarily a bad thing.

18. Sympathetic
I feel sincerely bad for Cavs fans. LeBron James ripped their hearts out when he left in 2010. It was a messy divorce, but when he returned in 2014, most Cavs fans I knew welcomed him back with open arms. He delivered them the championship they were starving for in 2016 and gave them four straight Finals appearances, but now he is gone again. It seems like most Cavs fans were prepared for the exit this time, and there does not seem to be a lot of harbored resentment, but I still feel bad. In some ways, no team has been more blessed by luck this century than Cleveland. They won the NBA Draft Lottery four times, including the grand prize of winning the right to draft the hometown hero LeBron in 2003. Yet with former number one pick Kyrie Irving forcing a trade prior to last season, the Cavs will tipoff the 2018-19 season without any of those four number one overall picks on the roster.

19. Challenged
As a Lakers fan living in Erie, Pennsylvania, I have lived my entire life defending my Lakers fandom. I am not a bandwagon fan. I hate bandwagon fans. My first memory of life was sitting on my dad’s lap was watching the Lakers defeat the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals. I’ve been hooked ever since. Now that LeBron is a Laker, the Lakers bandwagon will be more loaded than ever. So I was not surprised when the day after LeBron announced he was headed to L.A. I was questioned by a random lady in Tim Horton’s about my Lakers shirt and whether I became a fan because of LeBron. The shirt is probably a decade old, and I was all too prepared to retort by naming off some of the more obscure Lakers from the early 2000s. Shout out to Slava Medvedenko. 

20. Proud
While I loved cheering for Kobe Bryant the basketball player, it was hard to ever fully embrace Kobe Bryant the man. LeBron on the other hand, by all accounts, has been a model father, husband, and  man since he entered the league. Despite being dubbed as King James from day one, LeBron has never let the hype overshadow the substance. While he undoubtably cares about his image and his brand, he does so in a way that is socially conscious and culturally responsible. Plus, as a teacher, I love his commitment to education. The amount of money he has invested into the lives of young people, particularly from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, is astounding.

21. Nostalgic
I played basketball against LeBron James. Feel free to scroll on if you’ve heard thus one before, but it’s one of my favorites. I told this story as part of my 30 at 30 List #2: Places I’ve Played Basketball:

My favorite basketball anecdote goes a little something like this. In the summer after 5th grade, after my Dunkin’ Dutchmen squad won the local basketball tournament, we advanced to regional competition. The game was held in some M-city in Ohio. My memory fails me here as to exactly which city it was. Madison? Mansfield?Mentor? Anyway, we went up against a team of all-stars from Ohio, featuring a 6-foot-something phenom. On the first play of the game, I spotted up for what I thought was a good look at a 3-pointer. That same phenom swatted it into the third row, which is even more impressive when you’re playing in a grade school gym that only has a few rows of seating. Although we were top dogs back in Erie, we found ourselves down 30+ at halftime in Ohio. The phenom left at halftime to go play with the older kids, who would presumably offer a better level of competition. Our parents were skeptical that this young superstar wasn’t perhaps one of the older kids himself, so they demanded to see his birth certificate (apparently, they weren’t the only ones). The birth certificate showed that the kid in question was, in fact, legit. He was born Dec. 30, 1984, making him more than three months younger than me. The birth certificate also showed his name: LeBron James. And the rest, as they say, is history.

22. Nervous (opening the East up for Boston)
LeBron James has played for the Eastern Conference team in each of the past eight NBA Finals. The last Eastern Conference team not to feature LeBron in the Finals was the Boston Celtics in 2010. As a Lakers fan, it’s my birthright to hate the Celtics. While I was not born to witness the rivalry in the 60s (thankfully) and too young to remember the classic battles of the 80s, I vividly remember 2008 and 2010 when Boston and L.A. split a pair of championship showdowns. With LeBron out of the East, the Celtics are one of the favorites to win the conference. They have one of the league’s best young coaches in Brad Stevens and a team that is loaded with young talent. It’s scary to recall that they made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season despite not having the services of arguably their two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. I am very nervous about Boston making a run at a championship before LeBron gets the roster help he needs to make the Lakers a serious contender. 

23. Historical
With the addition of LeBron James, you could make a case that the all-time Lakers squad could defeat a team made up of the greats from every other team. I’d roll out a lineup of Kareem at center, LeBron and Elgin Baylor at forwards, Kobe and Magic at guard, and that means you’ve got Shaq, Wilt, James Worthy, and Jerry West coming off the bench! The opposition would roll out a starting five of Russell, Duncan, Bird, Jordan, and Oscar with any number of deep bench options. I’m not sure who would win, but the fact that it’s even a question says something about the talent the Lakers have had over the years. Boston is the only other team that can come close on the front line, but their guards don’t match up to Magic, Kobe, and West.

24. Curious
Lakers coach Luke Walton and his new star player have something in common. Both were drafted in 2003. LeBron, of course, went number one overall. Walton went in the second round (32nd overall). Walton’s 11-year playing career began with the Lakers and ended with the Cavs. LeBron’s began with the Cavs and could end with the Lakers…with Walton as his had coach. I am curious to see how this relationship pans out. LeBron’s most recent coach, Ty Lue, was also a former Laker. However, LeBron has had somewhat of a spotty relationship with his coaches in the past. While their game on the court was different, both LeBron and Walton also played with an unselfishness in their game that I hope will translate to a good working relationship as player and coach.

25. Annoyed
I can already hear the inevitable media circus with LaVar Ball and LeBron James being connected to the same team. Turn down the volume. Stop yelling, Stephen A. Smith! Get a clue, Skip Bayless! Will someone please get back to talking about basketball already.

26. Baffled 
I do not understand vandalism. Hopefully the new mural remains intact because it is truly a work of art.

27. Tired (10:30 p.m. tip-offs)
The only could thing about the Lakers fielding poor teams for the past five years was that I did not always feel obligated to stay up for the full game. Those 10:30 p.m. tips are a killer for an East Coast fan like myself who has to get up for work the next day. But I’m afraid this new look Lakers team will have me back to my old ways pulling some late nights.  

28. Hopeful (Ben & Max watching LeBron with me)
I mentioned earlier that my first memory of live was watching the Lakers with my dad. I am hopeful that my sons Ben and Max will get to share similar moments with me. At the end of LeBron’s contract with the Lakers Max will be the age I was when I watched with my dad, and Ben is 2.5 years older than Max, so I sincerely hope it happens.

29. Vindicated
To all of my dear students who talked trash on me the past few years for being a Lakers fan, I told you the Lakers would be back!

30. Open-minded
Ask me today who the greatest basketball player of all-time is, and I will say Michael Jordan, although I also enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take on the G.O.A.T. debate. Kareem is in the conversation, too, and if you factor in his success at the high school, college, and professional level, he’s as decorated as any basketball star. But the question of today is MJ or LeBron? Like I said, ask me today, and I will say Jordan has the edge, but LeBron’s résumé is unfinished. For his career, LeBron has averaged more than 2,000 points per season. He would only need to average 1,837.25 points per season for the next four years to break Kareem’s career scoring record. Barring injury he will move into the all-time top-10 in assists next season and all-time top-10 in steals within the next 2-3 years. If he can lead the Lakers back to the promised land and win another championship (or multiple championships), my mind is open to the possibility that when all is said and done, LeBron may be the greatest of all-time. There was a time when I would have argued Kobe over LeBron in the pantheon of basketball history. I cannot make that argument anymore. It’s hard to imagine a world when Jordan is usurped from the throne, but if anyone can do it, perhaps it’s King James. I’m not saying it will happen, but I’m open-minded to the possibility.