'LeBron to L.A.' is going strong, but does King James even fit with the Lakers?

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Friday, March 9, 2018

Luke Walton doesn't remember exactly which losing streak precipitated the call. His first season as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers was such a rough one, there were actually two eight-game losing streaks, a six-game losing streak and three other losing streaks of at least four games that could have sent him to one of his closest mentors for advice.

"I've always been very confident that the path we're on is the right path," Walton says. "But man, it gets cloudy at times when you're losing."

Self-doubt mushrooms. Young players who've known nothing but success can't process it at all. Malaise becomes a coping mechanism.

In the midst of one of those periods last season, Walton called his old coach, Phil Jackson, and asked for a flashlight. How the heck was he supposed to build a winning culture when even one win was so hard to come by?

"His suggestion was, 'Do the fireman's drill,'" Walton says of the full court, four-on-four-on-four drill. "Mix up your starters and your second unit so that starters are going against starters. And don't call any fouls so they get really frustrated and angry with you, and it almost turns into a fight during practice. That type of energy will kind of bring out their competitive spirit."

Walton gave it a shot.

"We did the whole practice like that," he says. "The players were f---ing fuming. They were yelling at each other, at me. ... But it sharpened us up."

When Walton thinks back on the journey he has taken with the Lakers during his first two seasons, these are the moments he remembers. The valleys they climbed out of. The competitive spirit they collectively found. It's so much more gratifying to win now -- the Lakers are 18-8 since Jan. 7 and 6-1 since the All-Star break -- knowing where the group has come from.

"It's exciting for us. We still have a lot of room to grow," Walton says. "As far as what we're building, we're still getting the foundation of the structure put in place to make sure that we're good. We're still [in a] tip-of-the-iceberg type of place.

"But if we can get all this in at a certain level and then start building it out to another level, we're not going to hit a ceiling too early."

The Lakers' best players -- Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma -- are all between 20 and 22 years old, which means their peak years are still several years away.

But this summer, they have an opportunity to fast-forward their timeline to contend for championships again if they can sign free agents like Paul George, 27, or LeBron James, 33. Everything about the Lakers' DNA says they won't hesitate to add established star players if they can. Lakers history resembles a relay race, whereupon a baton is passed from one all-time great to another, with 16 championships along the way.

Los Angeles runs on star power, on and off the court. Paparazzi don't bother taking pictures of D-listers walking on Melrose.

But can superstars already in their prime, like James or George, fit into the culture the Lakers have spent the past few seasons trying to build? Can the Lakers' young core evolve quickly enough to play at James' or George's level?

The answer to those questions may not ultimately matter. You don't pass on the chance to get players of that caliber. If one or both of these free agents choose to sign with the Lakers, it will simply be a good problem to figure out. Nobody felt sorry for the Warriors having to adjust to adding Kevin Durant to a championship-caliber team last season. Still, it was an adjustment.

James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will spend this weekend in Los Angeles being serenaded by hopeful Lakers fans and looking at four adoring billboards placed around the city by a self-described Lakers diehard, Jacob Emrani.

Although James' focus remains on trying to will his current team back to the NBA Finals, the time in the L.A. spotlight will be meaningful.

If James were to join a young team like the Lakers, he'd immediately become the center of the Los Angeles sports universe. All that team building and youth culture would still be foundational to the group, but James would set the culture going forward. His voice would be the loudest. His habits would set the tone.

His presence alone would alter the nascent Lakers' ecosystem. James would be some 10 years older than the Lakers' best players, with at least three rings (depending on how this season goes) and more basketball wisdom than the entire core put together.

Only Walton (three rings as a player and assistant coach) and associate head coach Brian Shaw (five rings as a player and assistant coach) have the championship credentials to even have a conversation with a player of James' stature. Only NBA legends like Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson (five rings) have the championship credentials to give him advice.

What could James learn from a 20-year-old like Ball, much less talk about with him?

Then again, who needs to talk when a point guard sets you up for good shots all night? That's the obvious appeal of joining a youthful squad with a talented playmaker like Ball. James has always needed another playmaker who can create offense. In Miami, that was Dwyane Wade. In Cleveland, that was Kyrie Irving. As he ages, that becomes even more important. And despite the noticeable upgrades the Cavs made at the trade deadline, they're still searching for a player capable of creating and producing when teams key on stopping James.

At this stage in his career, James' focus has to be on finding the best place to continue to contend for championships. He's chasing history, not just the Warriors.

The Lakers, of course, have been chasing relevance since Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2013. They've been fruitless in pursuit of marquee free agents and woefully misguided on the two recent long-term free-agent signings they did make, acquiringLuol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. All of which left them with no choice but to build from the draft and develop talent and a winning culture from within. Now that they've seemingly done it, what would it mean to hit the fast-forward button?

Can the Lakers' and James' objectives mesh? Can their story arcs fit together?

Those are the types of questions James will be weighing this summer. Sources close to James say they can see him playing until he's 40 years old. If he's able to do that, it would theoretically give him enough time to catch all-time greats like Bryant and Johnson, who each have five NBA titles (all with the Lakers). Michael Jordan remains a more distant target with six titles.

League sources believe it's "still a long shot" James chooses the Lakers this summer, but that's mostly because he's determined to stay focused on winning a title with the Cavaliers this season.

"If someone is pretending they know what LeBron is thinking, they're guessing," one source close to the situation says. "How could anyone know when he doesn't even know?"

Yes, James appreciated that the Cavaliers were proactive in reshaping the roster at the trade deadline. Yes, it was a positive sign that general manager Koby Altman kept James abreast of the Cavaliers' thinking in the final few days before trading for Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill.

And yes, it's positive the Lakers have now cleared enough space under the salary cap to pursue two superstars as free agents this summer.

But as one league source put it, if LeBron James goes to the Lakers, they were able to clear space like Cleveland did when James returned to the Cavs in 2014. And if LeBron James decides to stay in Cleveland, it won't be because he and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have suddenly started going out for Frappuccinos together.

"His decision won't be made to please others," one source close to the situation says. "It'll be made to please himself."

Which leaves both the Lakers and the Cavaliers in almost exactly the same position -- focused on being the best version of themselves -- and then waiting for James to decide their future, along with his own.

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