By Sean Gregory
July 2, 2018

LeBron James’ first NBA free agency decision, back in 2010, was met with contempt. James went on national television to dump northeast Ohio, his home, for Miami; Cleveland fans burned his jersey in the streets. The public turned on him. His second move, four years ago, was feted. After winning two titles in South Beach, James returned to Cleveland for a second chance to end the city’s major pro championship drought — which stretched back to 1954 — and become beloved again. The Cavs won the 2016 title. Mission accomplished.

Now comes LeBron James’ third decision, handed down Sunday night. The world’s best basketball player announced, via a release from his agent’s firm, that he has signed a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

This move lands somewhere in the middle. Call the Decision, Part 3 very acceptable, if not borderline exciting. Sure, that doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of LeBron’s move. But it’s stealthy terrific for the NBA.

James has made a practical choice. He has homes in Los Angeles, and his sons are approaching high school age. They’re both talented basketball players, and Southern California’s a hoops hotbed. He has a Hollywood production company. No one in northeast Ohio can begrudge him for leaving this time around. He delivered his Cleveland championship, which wins you immunity from jersey-burning.

LeBron to L.A. doesn’t come with the redemption narrative that accompanied his move from Miami to Cleveland. But for basketball fans, the deal is filled with potential upsides. The world’s best player is joining a legendary franchise, located in the entertainment capital of the globe. Sure, even with the LeBron, L.A. can’t match the Golden State Warriors superstar-for-superstar, especially with L.A.-native Paul George deciding to re-up with the Oklahoma City Thunder rather than sign with the Lakers. But Los Angeles can still trade for Kawhi Leonard, the former all-NBA first-teamer who’s coming off an injury plagued season with the San Antonio Spurs. Young players like Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball can offer James help.

And while the Lakers may challenge the Warriors and Houston Rockets for Western Conference supremacy, LeBron’s move to California opens the door for the Boston Celtics, who are loaded with talents like Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and budding star Jason Tatum, and the Philadelphia 76ers, with young game-changers Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, to reach the NBA Finals. By relocating to Los Angeles, LeBron’s sharing the NBA spotlight, which can only help the league long-term.

This move’s the mark of a player who’s terribly secure with his impact on the game. LeBron might be the best basketball player ever. But only joining the Golden State Warriors, or shoehorning his way onto the Houston Rockets roster, would have ensured he wins the 2019 championship. In fact, with the Warriors still in tact for the foreseeable future, LeBron may fall short during his L.A. stay, giving grist to the pundits who knock him for only winning three titles, as opposed to Michael Jordan’s six.

But he seems very much OK with that. He’s moving to L.A. because SoCal suits his interests, and his family. He didn’t announce the decision in a cheesy TV special, or in an essay to the world. Even through a bland press release, James can shake up the NBA. And he knows it.

The NBA’s already the hottest sport in the country. Baseball’s approaching its All-Star break, and we’re in the middle of a World Cup. NFL training camps start in a few weeks. Yet here we are, entering the July 4th holiday obsessing about NBA players switching uniforms. And with LeBron James now wearing the purple and gold of the L.A. Lakers, things can only get better for basketball.

 

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