The basketball gods never gave us Kobe vs. LeBron in the NBA Finals. They never gave us Kobe and LeBron as teammates, either.
Now, though, heading into LeBron James‘ 16th season, they have given us LeBron as a Laker—with Kobe Bryant in his third year of retirement. Playing in Staples Center beneath 16 championship banners—five of them won by Bryant—presents quite the canvas of possibilities, impossibilities and what-ifs for James.
Can he write a Lakers story that is unique to him? In the Hollywood pantheon built by Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and, of course, Bryant, how can James carve out his own Lakers legacy?
Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a no-brainer or an unfair burden that James has placed upon himself by electing to take his talents to Tinseltown.
“It’s simple,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told Bleacher Report during Las Vegas Summer League. “The only story is, you win a title. There is no other story.”
Rivers, having coached the Celtics to their 17th championship in 2008, is all too familiar with the privilege, burden and responsibility of representing one of the NBA’s storied franchises. Whether you’re a Hall of Fame coach or superstar player, you’re never just competing against your contemporaries. You’re judged against the accomplishments of those who came before you.
“When you go to a place like Boston and the Lakers—really, those are the only two—the only story you can write is winning a title,” Rivers said. “And he wouldn’t have gone there if he didn’t think he could do it.”
From James’ perspective, joining the Lakers wasn’t about trying to live up to the legacies that came before him, a person in his inner circle said. It was about a unique opportunity to lead a great but dormant franchise back to its rightful place.
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“He’s going to the Lakers having already won championships, having already established himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” the person close to James said. “He’s arguably already on Mount Rushmore. Other players have gone to the Lakers and achieved that. He’s bringing these things to the Lakers. He’s restoring them to where they should be.”
The Lakers haven’t won a championship—or even made it as far as the Western Conference Finals—since 2010. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. In Bryant’s last season in 2015-16, they won 17 games. After four straight years of picking in the top 10 in the draft—including three consecutive No. 2 picks from 2015 to ’17—they finally were able to put themselves in a position to hit on a marquee free agent.
It just so happens they hit on perhaps the most marquee free agent in NBA history.
“His legacy’s already been established,” Jerry West, now a consultant with the Lakers’ co-tenants at Staples Center, the Clippers, said. “I don’t know why anybody’s worried about legacy with him.
“Look, he’s already put more icing on the cake for a couple of different teams. His presence as a personality—and obviously his presence as a player—will only be enhanced by playing for a pretty legendary franchise.”
But West, as ruthless a competitor as a player and executive as the league has ever seen, knows better than anyone how high the bar has been set for LeBron in L.A. How would James overcome not winning a title with the Lakers…when Bryant won five of them?
“Listen, he’s not Kobe Bryant and Kobe Bryant’s not him, OK?” West said. “Two distinctly different players who have played the game at an incredibly high level and have their own style.”
Now, though, LeBron faces the same expectations Kobe once had. In some respects, the Lakers are Kobe’s franchise…but not his alone.
“Well, it’s Magic’s franchise, it’s Jabbar’s franchise, it’s Jerry West’s franchise,” Rivers said. “Everybody who’s ever won a title there, it’s their franchise. Just like Boston; it’s not Bill Russell’s franchise or Red Auerbach’s. Anybody who’s won there, it’s their franchise.”
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For LeBron to make it his, too, he has to win. And as great as James is, it seems like a stretch with the talent the Lakers currently have.
“You think they’re going to beat the Warriors?” a Western Conference executive said. “No chance. … If they could somehow find a way to get Kawhi Leonard, they would have a chance. And if they would give up something, I think they could get him.”
As a person close to James told B/R after James chose to sign a four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers earlier this month, the decision was about something “bigger than basketball.”
“It couldn’t be about chasing a ring,” the person said.
It was about wearing a historic jersey and playing for a historic franchise. It was about being in the movie capital of the world, as James has Hollywood aspirations after he is done playing.
“He and his people saw all the opportunities there, and they’re following the money,” another Western Conference executive told B/R.
But by following the money to L.A., James has exposed himself to expectations far greater than any of the other stops along the way in his Hall of Fame career.
“I didn’t think he’d go there for that reason,” one of the Western Conference execs said.
Perhaps the closest comparison to James, at the height of his powers, joining the Lakers, is Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt the Stilt went to L.A. in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1968, having captured one NBA title with the Sixers the year before—and having already established himself as one of the best players ever to suit up on a basketball court.
In the end, Chamberlain, who died in 1999, became known more for his 100-point game and his womanizing than for being a Laker. Of course, he did hang one of the Lakers’ 16 banners in 1972, along with West, Gail Goodrich, a diminished Baylor and a then-27-year-old guard/forward named Pat Riley. But this was before the Showtime Lakers and long before the Kobe-Shaq-Phil Jackson Lakers.
Where will James fit into this conversation? Will he go down as one of the great Lakers of all time? Or simply as one of the greatest ever to play…who happened to play for the Lakers?
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“In some respects, I don’t think he has ever gotten the credit that he deserves,” West said. “We all have professional jealousies, and everybody looks at how many rings everybody else has. I know guys who have a bunch of rings that are bench players. A bunch. To me, that doesn’t ever define his legacy. His body of work, by the time he’s finished, is going to be maybe not challenged in the history of the game.”
But in the history of the Lakers? That’s another story.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.