Last year, Gordon Hayward, perhaps the biggest name free agent available, waited until 4th July before making a decision to join the Boston Celtics. The year before, so did Kevin Durant with the Golden State Warriors.
Not this year. The biggest dominoes are falling early, and the biggest of all just made up his mind.
LeBron James has agreed to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time, and the Eastern Conference for the first time, to sign a four year maximum-value contract with the L.A. Lakers.
The move, first reported by LeBron’s own agency, sees James move out west to join a Lakers team that finished 35-47 last season. They missed the playoffs in 2017/18, and now have not made them for five seasons. But they do have grand designs to change that.
For the best part of a couple of years now, the Lakers have been looking to position themselves as major players in 2018 free agency. After striking out massively during the league’s big 2016 free agency overspend – in which, by giving Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng $64 million and $72 million respectively, followed by $50 million to Jordan Clarkson, they were one of the worst offenders – the Lakers sought to rebuild through the draft no longer.
Instead, they wanted to bring back Lakers Exceptionalism. This is one of the most storied franchises in the sport’s history, and they repositioned themselves appropriately. Lakers Exceptionalism means to target the best players in the belief that the reputation of the franchise will help get them, just like it did when Shaquille O’Neal signed with them as a free agent back in 1996.
Changing out their management team, the Lakers gave a more prominent role to Magic Johnson, a personification of the Lakers’ glory years and a willing spokesmen for how good the team wanted to be again. So open were the Lakers about this intent that Magic kept getting fine for tampering. Nevertheless, it didn’t matter how obvious it was; the Lakers were continuing to target the game’s very best.
And it worked.
Ironically, a trade with the Cavaliers was a big help. The February deal between the two teams saw Clarkson’s bad contract moved with Larry Nance in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and a first-round pick (since used on Moritz Wagner, who signed today). In making that deal, the Lakers were able to free themselves of $12.5 million more in salary cap space. And while the Lakers could technically have still had enough space to sign LeBron without making that deal, the potential it gives them to acquire further talent this offseason; they are still said to be firmly in the mix for Kawhi Leonard, who himself is said to really want the same back.
LeBron James has made the NBA Finals eight consecutive seasons with two different franchises, all of them in the Eastern Conference. He now moves out west for the first time, where his Lakers team will have to take on the likes of the Warriors and Houston Rockets if he is to make it nine in a row.
Reportedly, the Lakers have also agreed deals to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, sign JaVale McGee from the Warriors and also add Lance Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers. Kawhi remains the biggest piece of the potential puzzle – with Paul George, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant already agreeing to re-sign with their current teams, and DeAndre Jordan moving to Dallas, many of the biggest name free agents are off the market now.
Lakers Exceptionalism claimed the biggest of the lot.