LeBron James is a giant.
He’s not bigger than the Lakers.
James will retire as the greatest player in NBA history.
He’s not greater than the Lakers.
James has spent four years in Los Angeles. The Lakers have been here for 62. James has won one championship in Los Angeles. The Lakers have won a dozen.
These are all inordinately obvious statements that should not require recitation, but some people around town have gotten in their heads that the Lakers need to keep submitting to the King’s commands for the franchise to survive.
Honestly? At this point in his career, there really is only one way LeBron James can help the Lakers win a championship.
They must trade him.
It’s their best chance at getting the fastest start on their inevitable rebuild. It’s their last chance to fix the Lakers brand before it sinks into what could be a decade of mediocrity.
Certainly, the mere act of saying it — trade LeBron James! — sounds crazy. It seems absurd. It feels like a hot take. But the cold truth is, the Lakers are not about one player, they’ve never been about one player, they’ve endured and preserved and triumphed through sudden retirements and stunning trades and awful injuries.
Jerry West has come, and gone, and they’ve survived. Magic Johnson has come, and gone, and they’ve figured it out. Shaquille O’Neal has come, and gone, and they’ve won three titles since.
Before placing James on a lofty pedestal above the town’s loftiest sports franchise, understand he needs the Lakers more than the Lakers need him.
And right now, for their own survival, the Lakers pretty much need him to leave.
Start with the fact agreed upon by anyone who has watched this mess of a basketball team. As constituted, they’re not going to win a title before James’ contract expires after next season. Period. End of debate.
They can’t add enough pieces to fix the misfit combination of a 37-year-old James, a broken Anthony Davis and a lost Russell Westbrook. They don’t have enough draft assets or financial flexibility to undo the roster nightmare created by James himself, who has been a terrific player and a terrible general manager.
Even if James continues his current incredible individual play, keeping those three players together ensures another meager season, James gets another year older, and misses even more games with injuries, and then what? When he is a free agent in the summer of 2023, do you really want to give James a Kobe Bryant retirement contract? And put the Lakers’ future on hold for another five years? So, you let him walk and get nothing and then where are you?
Now for the second fact. Of the Lakers’ three best players, James’ trade value offers greatest rewards for the lowest risk. Nobody wants Westbrook and that onerous $47 million final season on his contract, so forget that. There would be interest in Davis, but his fragility greatly lowers his attractiveness.
James is one of the few players in the NBA who could instantly turn a championship contender — which the Lakers are decidedly not — into champions. He’s not built for the long haul, but as a one-year rental, even at his age, he could command a bounty that could set up the Lakers to become something they haven’t been in years.
A young team full of promise. An exciting team filled with growth. The sort of team that Lakers fans would more easily embrace than this current band of confused attackers and slow defenders.
Absolutely, there are questions. Like, even with all the Lakers’ problems, how can any team possibly survive the departure of arguably the greatest player ever immediately after one of his greatest seasons ever?
Consider, James left the Miami Heat in 2014 and, while they wandered in the desert for five years, they were in the NBA Finals against the Lakers in 2020 and are on top of the Eastern Conference today.
Also, James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time in 2018 and they only struggled for three years before rising to the No. 4 slot in the Eastern Conference this year.
A trade of James might initially feel like an ending but, really, it’s only a beginning.
Another concern might be, if James doesn’t want to be traded — and there’s been no indication he wants to leave Los Angeles — how would his unwelcomed departure effect the club’s relationship with all the great players repped by James’ Klutch Sports?
There will indeed be lots of rumbling from Rich Paul’s group, but in the end, while James would be leaving, Hollywood isn’t going anywhere. The entertainment capital is still the entertainment capital. Players are still going to want to come here. The Lakers will still be the Lakers.
A third concern might be that Lakers fans would be heartbroken at the loss of James. Except, really, he’s never quite found his way into their hearts.
He did what he came here to do, but their 2020 championship run was short and played in a bubble and few really shared the experience. He’s yet to win a title with Lakers fans in the stands, and he probably won’t win one, and so he’s viewed more as an entertainer than a family member. He’s no Magic, no Kobe, no Shaq.
Over the weekend at the All-Star game, James tried to assert his franchise value by basically calling out the beleaguered Lakers basketball vice president Rob Pelinka. Out of nowhere, in a pregame news conference, James praised Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti. Then, privately, he apparently passed the word to several outlets that he was unhappy that Pelinka publicly said James agreed with the team’s trade deadline inactivity, which he didn’t. He also told The Athletic he wouldn’t close the door on a return to Cleveland.
It was clear that, in his trademark side-door way, James was setting up a showdown with Pelinka and perhaps forcing the Lakers to choose between the two.
Except, as much as Pelinka seems consistently overmatched in his job, many of his recent moves are ones recommended by James. This is not about Pelinka’s future, which was constantly in question long before this weekend. This is about the Lakers’ future, and, in that battle for value, LeBron James loses.
For that future to be the foundation of a new championship era, the Lakers must go on without him.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.