LeBron James signed with the Heat in 2010, took the stage at an introductory/celebratory rally and declared Miami would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships. The threat felt real. People feared that the Heat had just formed an invincible dynasty with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Four years later, LeBron was playing for the Cavaliers.
As much as LeBron, Wade and Bosh signing with Miami changed the paradigm, LeBron returning to Cleveland really shifted the NBA into its current state of superstar movement. By signing a series of short contracts with the Cavs then leaving for the Lakers in 2014, LeBron showed the power of flexibility. He held Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s feet to the fire, extracted all he could from that situation then bolted for a Lakers team that had been stocking up on assets – then got the Lakers to pool those assets for Anthony Davis.
That obviously worked out great for LeBron, who has won titles with both Cleveland and Los Angeles.
For the Cavs and every other team with a star following LeBron’s lead, it’s a combustible situation. Many stars find the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Burnout rate can be high.
But the Lakers have found rare stability with their stars.
After two years in Los Angeles, LeBron signed a two-year contract extension that starts next year. Davis spent one season with the Lakers then locked in for four more years, the longest feasible length on his new contract.
This isn’t the norm.
Here’s how many seasons high-end in-their-prime stars (defined by making an All-NBA team both before and after switching teams) have stayed with a new team since 2014, including the full length of existing current contracts:*
*I counted Blake Griffin‘s player-option season but not Davis’, Jimmy Butler‘s or Kawhi Leonard‘s.
LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade after just two seasons in San Antonio, but he and the Spurs worked it out. Blake Griffin is the one star on the chart who had practically no say in his move. He signed a five-year contract to stay with the Clippers then got traded in the first season. With the Pistons, um, doing whatever they’re doing, we’ll see whether Griffin sticks five years in Detroit.
But LeBron and Davis have each committed to the Lakers for five years with practically no caveats.
That is such a huge boon to the Lakers. They remain a championship contender for years without the distraction of speculation around their superstars.
With LeBron and Davis locked in, Los Angeles set out building around those two.
The Lakers are keeping all three sub-30 role players from their playoff rotation. They re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (three years, $39,116,585 with $30 million guaranteed) and signed Kyle Kuzma to an extension (three years, $40 million with a player option). Alex Caruso also returns.
Los Angeles also added new faces to its supporting cast.
The Lakers traded Danny Green and the No. 28 pick to the Thunder for Dennis Schroder. Though an excellent stylistic fit with stars like LeBron and Davis, Green has shown signs of slippage at age 33. Los Angeles could definitely use a playmaking guard like Schroder, especially if he sustains his career-best 3-point shooting from last season – and fits in.
Signing Wesley Matthews (one year, room exception) as another 3-and-D guard mitigates the loss of Green. At that point it was the No. 28 pick in a down-looking draft for a helpful veteran in Schroder. Easy call.
Giving Montrezl Harrell a 1+1 for the full taxpayer mid-level exception should have been a more-challenging call. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is a good player – but more so in the regular season. His defensive deficiencies and limited outside shooting could really limit his postseason impact (at best).
Maybe the Lakers valued getting another regular-season interior scorer. With the short turnaround from the bubble, Harrell could help keep Los Angeles’ 16-game players fresh for the playoffs. It’s easy to see Schroder and Harrell forming a productive pick-and-roll partnership.
And maybe the Lakers are even smart enough to find a sizable postseason role for Harrell. Davis can cover a lot of ground protecting the paint and space the floor. LeBron can be the primary playmaker who draws attention with the ball and sets up Harrell.
But at that point, the Lakers are scheming around a role player rather than their stars. Though I don’t know whom else they could have gotten, the Lakers might eventually regret using their MLE on Harrell rather than someone who’d fit better with LeBron and Davis in the playoffs.
Marc Gasol is that better defender and 3-point shooter – if he has enough in the tank at age 35. He looked like toast with the Raptors in the playoffs. But for a two-year minimum contract, it’s definitely worth finding out. Gasol’s basketball intelligence and passing could be special in combination with LeBron’s.
Maybe Harrell will play enough regular-season minutes to preserve Gasol for the playoffs. Markieff Morris, who re-signed for the minimum, could also help.
To make room for these newcomers, the Lakers let Rajon Rondo (Hawks), Avery Bradley (Heat) and Dwight Howard (76ers) leave in free agency and traded JaVale McGee to the Cavaliers.
That’s quite the supporting-cast upheaval.
The Lakers return just 59% of their postseason minutes that went to non-All-Star players – the fourth-fewest on record for a championship team:*
The NBA began tracking postseason minutes in 1952.
The Lakers faced a historically low level of competition en route to their championship. That removes nothing from their accomplishment. But there’s also a reality: The Lakers couldn’t have run back the same team and assumed they’d repeat.
To their credit, the Lakers didn’t rest on their laurels. This supporting cast looks better, even with my Harrell concerns.
But this remains primarily a LeBron-and-Davis operation – and, to the Lakers’ benefit, will for the next few years.