LeBron's play may not prevent tough future for Lakers

NBA.com Global on Dec 08, 2018 05:22 AM
LeBron's play may not prevent tough future for Lakers
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 27: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball against the Denver Nuggets on November 27, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

Nobody who’s classified as aging by his profession, outside of maybe New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, is feeling this frisky.

He turns 34 on Dec. 30 and is surrounded by teammates who asked for his autograph just a few years ago. Yet is anyone on the Los Angeles Lakers -- or the NBA for that matter -- showing more of a youthful giddyup right now than LeBron James?

LeBron keeps defying age and the deep mileage on his body while feeding the Kia MVP conversation this season. His latest work of art was a dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs, chopping up the once-proud franchise Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time). James’ 20 fourth-quarter points lead an exasperated Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to explain this to anyone who just parachuted in from Pluto:

“Have you watched LeBron James play before? He’s LeBron James -- that’s what makes him difficult to guard.”

Yes, he’s still LeBron James, even after two tours in Cleveland and a brief-yet-fulfilling stop in Miami. New town, team, uniform, fanboys … it doesn’t matter, LeBron is building a strong case for being the best ever and, whaddya know, also making a case in the Western Conference for the fast-rising Lakers.

All signs point toward a Christmas Day showdown at Golden State which might be for first place in the West. It will also be an anticipated checkpoint meeting with two players – Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant – who’ve denied James championships. And speaking of which…

The two-time defending champion Warriors are the latest “superteam” and in Magic Johnson’s and LeBron’s biggest nightmare, perhaps the last for a long time.

If Durant is still on the Warriors this time next season, then the grand plan put forth by the Lakers’ team president and his resident superstar could fizzle out. As brilliant as LeBron looks today, he’s on the clock physically and mentally. Don’t ever dismiss the persistence of Father Time and the competitive patience of the player who didn’t sign up for second place when he came to the Lakers.

It often annoys basketball fans when the conversation jumps to the future and handicaps over who will join LeBron next season instead of staying in the present. But such is the reality in a league where free-agent shifts can shape the a franchise’s direction and/or where the Larry O’Brien Trophy lands next.

Durant did this three summers ago when he left Oklahoma City (and fellow star Russell Westbrook) to align himself with a more gentler and forgiving star in Curry. Suddenly, the regular season became moot and the question was: how many games the Warriors would need in each Finals before sipping champagne?

Durant will once again become the focal point in free agency next summer. The most reasonable guesses point toward him signing with the Lakers, the New York Knicks or him staying put. It really doesn’t matter what players or the media say between now and then, as circumstances can change. However, Durant threw grease on the fire in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher by explaining how superstars may not be keen on playing with LeBron.

Here we go again. And, you know, he’s somewhat right about that.

It is well documented that LeBron has never convinced another star to sign up. Sure, that’s partly because it would’ve meant moving to Cleveland, something Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade either couldn’t or wouldn’t do. That led LeBron to take his talents to Miami. Bosh, a star previously in Toronto, wrestled constantly with the sacrifices required to be LeBron’s teammate. In LeBron’s second Cavs era, Kevin Love did as well.

The ultimate basketball litmus test awaits LeBron as he’s no longer in the snowy Midwest, and his boss is no longer Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. As we’re seeing on a nightly basis, LeBron is still LeBron. (To paraphrase Popovich, good enough to position an average team for big success.) Shouldn’t all that be enough to sway a Durant or another A-list free agent next summer?

For now, LeBron and Magic are 0-for-1 in their attempt to debunk the theory that folks are selective when it comes to being LeBron’s teammate. Last summer, Paul George chose Westbrook -- a more ball-dominant star without the rings -- and the Oklahoma City lifestyle over LeBron when he had the chance to jump. George didn’t even give Magic the courtesy of an interview.

Kyrie Irving bailed on LeBron for the Boston Celtics after they spent three seasons together and won the title in 2016 with the Cavs. While Irving’s explanation for his exit seems as murky as his (since refuted) flat-Earth beliefs, he clearly wanted his own team to lead.

In short, the “superteam” trend is more myth than reality. Other than Miami and Golden State, there hasn’t been a team formed specifically to win championships pronto. Superstars aren’t hopping teams with regularity.

Chris Paul left the LA Clippers in a trade to join James Harden on the Houston Rockets mainly because the LA Clippers weren’t willing to give him a max contract. DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors last summer because no other team was giving him the deal he sought. After burning bridges in San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard went to Toronto in a trade.

Superstars tend to stay in place, especially if they get their money and their team is in reasonably good shape.

Today’s contenders were mostly built from the ground up -- something that’s often true in NBA lore. The Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Sixers, Bucks and Raptors (aside from Kawhi) were all organically constructed through the Draft and trades.

New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis could be in play next summer if he pouts loud enough and forces a trade. Plus, he’s now repped by Klutch Sports, LeBron’s agency. Still, Davis hasn’t sent out any trial balloons about leaving New Orleans.

It’s easy and reflexive to take LeBron’s high level of play for granted because he’s been in the clouds for his entire career. He’s taking a career-high 5.9 3-pointers per game, yet still has burst and attacks the rim with the intent of posterizing foes. He remains a better rebounder, passer, scorer and clutch performer than any of his teammates.

LeBron is leading a Lakers team with a young core and marginal veterans without skipping a beat or a game. They’ve been helped by a soft segment of the schedule, helping the Lakers move just a few games from first in the West. It’s not unreasonable to think of them as a top-three or-four team in a season where there’s no clear No. 2 team behind the Warriors.

Perhaps the most unselfish scorer in NBA history, his skills should give any marquee free agent reason to sign in LA, right?

Maybe someone will … with the Clippers. They have a great supporting cast in place and will have millions to spend next summer on a star seeking his own team.

That would be the ultimate slap in the face: Durant, Leonard or some other star decides to play in Staples Center … but not on LeBron’s team.

It’s all worthless chatter for now. With seven months left before the crowning of the next champion, the NBA season doesn’t play the free-agent game until it must. Meanwhile, LeBron is playing a tremendous game at an age when most superstars begin to develop an ache in their limbs. He’s elevating the Lakers, which is a compelling argument for another great player to ride shotgun with LeBron.

But suppose no one wants that seat?

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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