Long-suffering Los Angeles Lakers fans — devoid of a championship for eight whole years and forced to endure five straight non-playoff seasons to match the previous 65-year total — returned Sunday to their chest-thumping, letter-L-medallion-popping, ripping-off-sunglasses-in-awe ways. LeBron James decided to unite his established, self-made championship brand to one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports with a merger that just feels right: the game’s biggest star with an organization in a city that exalts celebrities like no other.
Magic Johnson — the franchise’s greatest player, half of the tandem that rescued the NBA from the days of tape-delayed Finals and the man whose smile and no-look passes put the “show” in Showtime — delivered on his vow to make the Lakers relevant again. A few days after going into third person to remind people exactly who he is and what he’s capable of, Johnson charmed the best player of this generation into purple and gold. Now, Johnson had the advantage of James’ mutual interest but someone with a little cache and an enviable post-playing career as an entrepreneur was needed to close the deal.
Barring a trade for Kawhi Leonard or some other needle-moving free-agent signing, James doesn’t make the Lakers instant contenders. Established powers like Golden State and Houston remain better. James just makes the Lakers matter. He provides a reason to care about the organization that goes beyond tradition or familiarity. By making at least a three-year commitment, James has granted the Lakers time to execute a vision that could eventually allow him to raise another banner as Kobe, Shaq, Kareem, Magic, Wilt and The Logo did before him. And by taking his talents west of the Mississippi River, James has made the Eastern Conference more irrelevant than ever.
Fans in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto can celebrate James’ departure for opening up a clearer path to the NBA Finals. Franchises in Washington, Detroit, Indiana, Chicago and Atlanta, among others, can mourn that James didn’t make the decision before they were forced to try something different. James leaves knowing that from 2011-18, the West was represented by Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Golden State while the East sent him. He leaves knowing that over that time he conquered 14 other teams — first in Miami, then Cleveland — and claimed ownership of half the league, providing those teams no hope of ever getting past him. He leaves knowing that whoever gets out of the East from here on out will be confronted with a question — would you have been able to defeat James? — that could only be answered through speculation and talking-head debates.
In making nine Finals appearances in 15 seasons, James is responsible for sending several franchises into challenging rebuilding efforts and several coaches toward the unemployment line. James never had a real rival during his time in the Eastern Conference, partly because Paul Pierce was too old for them to be peers and James teamed up with two potential challengers in Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, but also because the conference talent disparity was pronounced.
James had nothing left to accomplish in the league’s junior varsity and his decision to abandon the Cavaliers should push the NBA to scrap geographical separations altogether. Take this into consideration: Now that James is in Los Angeles, all seven active MVPs and 11 of the 15 All-NBA players from last season are in the Western Conference. During his run to eight straight NBA Finals, James faced one first-team All-NBA player in 24 playoff series: Derrick Rose. And even more disturbing is that just two other non-LeBron Eastern Conference players have been named first-team All-NBA during that span: Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, two big men on franchises that can’t wait to get rid of them.
Fourteen of the past 20 NBA champions have come from the Western Conference, with Golden State making the presence of James negligible by going 8-1 against Cleveland in the last two NBA Finals. James is responsible for the past three championships won by Eastern Conference teams, leaving the 2008 Boston Celtics as the last team to beat the West without him.
The current iteration of the Celtics stands as the overwhelming favorite to take the East next season, coming within a Game 7 of toppling James despite the absence of Irving and Gordon Hayward. Celtics president Danny Ainge built a team with the dual purpose of dethroning James and remaining competitive long after he decided to surrender his crown. But sadly, few other executives have matched his eagerness to assemble a competitive team. Brooklyn tried to beat James but foolishly loaded up Boston with those shortsighted plans. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri talked a good game, but his team got swept in back-to-back years. Also, few elite players have tried to avoid the gauntlet of the West to secure a possibly easier path to the Finals. In fact, many have fled the East to make that conference weaker.
Despite the hurdling-opponent-hijinks of Giannis Antetokounmpo and a more trustworthy process in Philadelphia, the East doesn’t appear capable of closing the gap anytime soon. More than $1 billion were spent in the first 24 hours of free agency, with owners out West responsible for a huge chunk of that. Paul George, traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City last year, elected to stay with 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul, coming off his first conference finals trip in 13 seasons out West, chose to remain with reigning MVP James Harden in Houston. Kevin Durant, the 2014 MVP, decided to keep his Finals MVP trophies from 2017 and ’18 in Golden State with two-time MVP Stephen Curry. And now James, who sandwiched four MVPs around Rose, is in Los Angeles after a run of conference dominance not seen since Bill Russell.
James’ presence made it easy to declare which team would represent the East in the Finals, and even easier to declare the best player in the conference. The latter is now open for debate. Joel Embiid and Antetokounmpo can make the best arguments but both have a combined one playoff series win. Irving is the best player in the East with a championship ring but he is still waiting to win his first postseason series without James.
Commissioner Adam Silver has proven to be open to making changes for the betterment of the game. The NBA already scrapped the East-West format in the All-Star Game, but didn’t go far enough because it still went with the top 12 players from each conference instead of the 24 overall best players. The argument to have the top 16 teams in the playoffs, regardless of conference, has been gaining momentum for some time but that fails to take into consideration an unbalanced regular-season schedule.
If the league wants to do something bold, without rewarding or punishing teams strictly off geography, it should follow the models of MLB and the NFL and have an American Conference (featuring the Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Washington, Brooklyn, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver, Golden State and Phoenix) and a National Conference (featuring the Clippers, Miami, Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Indiana, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, Utah, Sacramento and Portland) to combine the organizations that actually try with the ones that don’t genuinely care to compete. This format would also ensure that most of the league’s rivalries that matter maintain their proper placement, with the Lakers and Celtics only meeting with a championship on the line and Boston and Philadelphia forced to beat each other to advance to the NBA Finals.
The East has been dragging up the rear for so long that the league should consider a drastic measure to remedy buzzkill matchups in the championship round. The explanation for maintaining status quo in the East-West model and a frustrating playoff format that features the eight best teams in each conference instead of the 16 best is that teams and talent are cyclical; one player — such as Shaquille O’Neal in 1996 — could shift the whole balance of power. But the East has been the least for nearly a generation, with an inferiority approaching legal drinking age.
Regardless of what he accomplishes in Los Angeles, James’ legacy is already set among the Mount Rushmore of greats. He can certainly elevate his status — and gain some fuel for his GOAT argument with the support of one of the league’s most energetic fan bases — should he win a title in Los Angeles. Beyond basketball, James has already provided players with a blueprint to flex their powers and create the most ideal situation for their careers. He’s shown them how to use their platform to raise social awareness and affect change. And he has provided hope for an extended — and dominant — career twilight.
But with James’ latest move, the league should give him the opportunity to take credit for another long-overdue alteration to improve the game: eliminating archaic geographical boundaries that have made competitive balance impossible. James made it known that he no longer cares about East and West, and neither should we.
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