LeBron James recently became the NBA's All-Time Leader in combined points for the regular season and playoffs, adding one more accolade to his long list of accomplishments in his career. However, LeBron is not satisfied with being one of the greats; he wants to be the greatest ever. James has been chasing the ghost of who many believe to be the GOAT, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, the man who finished his career never losing in the NBA Finals en route to six championship rings.
The pursuit of MJ
LeBron has four rings and has won a championship for every franchise he has played for with the same number of Finals MVPs to show that he has been the most critical player for each of those rings. But James is going to have to add a ring or two to try and match MJ's accomplishments.
The pursuit of Jordan is partly why LeBron decided to join the Lakers, a franchise with a rich winning tradition known for their relentless pursuit of championship banners. However, recent struggles in Tinseltown have raised some questions regarding the Lakers' commitment to winning another championship in the LeBron era. They continue to struggle this season after some questionable roster decisions by the organization.
"If LeBron James were on the Cleveland Cavaliers right now, they would be coming out of the Eastern Conference.
Stephen A. Smith, ESPN
The Cavaliers are one of the top teams in the East right now with All-Star duo Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, paired with versatile bigs Evan Mobley and Lauri Markannen, along with recently acquired scoring machine Caris Levert. Smith imagines that adding LeBron James to that core would be devastating to the rest of the Eastern Conference, including the stacked Brooklyn Nets. In theory, a package around Kevin Love and Collin Sexton would be a fair trade for LeBron financially. Still, the real question is if the Cavaliers would even want a ball-dominant player in LeBron to lead their young core.
The ball moves exceptionally well in Cleveland right now. While LeBron is known for his passing ability, the assists mainly come from him attracting so much attention from the opposing team's defense and kicking the ball out to a shooter or dropping the ball off to the roll guy. The worry here is that although LeBron's arguably the best decision-maker in NBA history, his need for the ball would severely hamper the progress of the many young stars on the Cavaliers. LeBron would have to secede playmaking duties to Darius Garland and create offense like Draymond Green does for the Warriors, a role we haven't seen LeBron play in his 19-year career.
Defense wins championships
The Lakers are also one of the worst defensive teams in the league, allowing the most points in the paint of the 30 teams in the NBA. Cleveland is first in the league in points allowed and fourth in opponent field goal percentage; their young core allows them to fly around on rotations while their size and length ensure rim protection throughout each game.
LeBron is a master at understanding defensive schemes and is a solid team defender at this point in his career, but his age limits his productivity on that side of the floor which potentially hurts the Cavaliers in a situation where LeBron is playing 35-40 minutes a game. Cleveland's defense makes them a great team, so having an aging superstar may hamper their success as a unit.
"I don't care about picks, I care about winning championships. Rob has done the same thing. He went and got AD, he didn't care about picks as well."
LeBron James, postgame Interview
LeBron's return to Cleveland is all speculation at this point, and both he and his agent Rich Paul have doubled down on their support of the Lakers brass - the idea that James is no longer committed to Los Angeles is a farce. However, if he does care about winning championships, the Lakers might not be in the best position to help him with that, given their lack of roster flexibility coming into next year. Russell Westbrook will likely opt-in next year and get the $47.1 million remaining on his contract; Anthony Davis is rarely available but is too good of a player to give up on considering his age and talent. If the Lakers truly believe that this current roster is going to get it together next year and make a run for the title, they are wrong.
Even if their Big Three manage to figure out a way to co-exist on offense, Russ' abilities are seriously in question at this stage of his career. The athleticism has waned, and his jump shot is completely non-existent while the turnovers and erratic play still exist when he is being his usual aggressive self. But, say Russ goes back to being the Russ we all know and love, he will still be a below-average defensive player; even a healthy Anthony Davis would not make up for Russ' inability to stay in front of the ball. I am sure the Lakers want to win, but there is not much they can do to improve their chances in the near future.
Many are hopeful that in the last year of his deal, Russ' expiring contract will interest teams, allowing the Lakers to take back a collection of good players that can help their cause. It seems like a simple salary dump, but it's possible that the free agency class of 2023 may be a weak one, giving teams no reason to go after expiring contracts to free up cap space.
Also, with seventeen championship banners hanging from their rafters, the rest of the NBA is certainly not interested in helping Los Angeles win another chip. LeBron left Cleveland and came to Los Angeles to get to that magic number of six rings, but in an ironic turn of events, perhaps a second homecoming is his best shot at competing for championships once again.