By MIKE HERNDON
Avoid the rush – start hating the Lakers now.
Actually, you may already find yourself standing in line: When LeBron James announced Sunday that he will sign a four-year, $154 million deal with Los Angeles, the already-large segment of NBA fans who consider themselves Lakers haters saw their numbers grow exponentially. LeBron hate is a cottage industry of sorts, and has only intensified as his evolving game has shifted the debate over the last several years from whether he’s the best player in the league to whether he’s the best player ever.
If Kawhi Leonard and/or another superstar were to join him in L.A., however – and it seems unlikely that he’d have gone there unless the Lakers can build a better roster around him than they already have – then it’ll go beyond simple LeBron hate to a whole other realm.
No one wants to see one team scoop up all the stars and dominate a league. We want to see competition, drama. We want to see a champion rise above adversity, to see them have to beat someone as good or better in order to claim their title. We don’t want to see a cakewalk to a championship.
But that is exactly why we should be cheering, or at least intrigued by, James’ decision. If the Lakers can add another piece or two around him (it won’t be Paul George, who took himself out of the mix and re-signed with Oklahoma City), we may finally see a team that can seriously challenge the Superteam we already have — the Golden State Warriors.
By himself, LeBron isn’t enough, even as good as he is. We’ve seen that movie the last two years in a row in Cleveland. The one time James’ Cavaliers did get the better of Golden State, he had Kyrie Irving and his flat-earth-believing self riding shotgun — and sinking the game-winning shot in Game 7.
If he hopes to knock off the Warriors again, James needs at least one more superstar-caliber player to help him. In Miami, King James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In Cleveland, he had Irving and Kevin Love. In Los Angeles, he’s got Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and a handful of mid-level free agent signees who came on board right after LeBron, including Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. Magic Johnson’s work is not done.
If he’s successful, even the affable Johnson will be hated for it outside L.A. LeBron will be hated for going there, and so will whoever ends up joining him. And it won’t even be because of Lavar Ball’s big mouth.
Look around at other Superteams constructed largely through free agency and you’ll find the accompanying hate to match: the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat, the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, practically any successful New York Yankees team from the Steinbrenner era to present day. And the one superstar in the Warriors’ star-studded lineup that they didn’t personally draft – Kevin Durant – is now probably the most hated man in the NBA simply for moving to Oakland.
Or at least, he has been until now.
But here’s something else worth noting: Building a Superteam – even a great one – doesn’t necessarily ensure domination, or even success. While the Heat made it to the Finals in each of LeBron’s four seasons there, they won the title only twice. Even with Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek joining Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and the rest of the Red Wings’ already formidable lineup, they still needed seven games to get past the hated Avalanche in the 2002 Western Conference finals.
And the Yankees, the biggest salary-slingers of them all, have one exactly one World Series championship in the last 18 years.
Even the Warriors were taken to Game 7 in the Western Conference finals last year by Houston. But of course, the Rockets might be considered a Superteam themselves. They brought in James Harden. They brought in Chris Paul. They brought in Eric Gordon. None of those guys were drafted by the Rockets – they’re hired guns.
So why don’t we hate the Rockets? Because they haven’t won anything.
There’s no guarantee the Lakers will either. Whether they can knock off Warriors would likely depend on who else Johnson can lure to L.A. and which other pieces they can keep to fill out his lineup and bench. But won’t it be fun to see them try?
(This post was updated after James announced Sunday that he is signing with the Lakers.)
(Update No. 2: DeMarcus Cousins signed a one-year deal with the Warriors. Resume panic.)
(Photos from Wikimedia Commons, Flickr.)