Celebrities and members of the NBA community welcomed LeBron James to Los Angeles after it was announced Sunday he will join the Lakers on a four-year, $154M deal.
USA TODAY Sports
When Magic Johnson walked into LeBron James’ Los Angeles area home on the night of June 30, heading in as the clock turned to 9:01 p.m. Pacific time and the NBA’s free agency gates were opened wide, he was like a high schooler going in for the final exam.
The Lakers legend had done his homework, studying game tape of James during every stage of his storied career with the hopes of understanding the evolution of his game. He was there to talk hoops with one of the few people on the planet who was on his level, this 33-year-old who wanted to know more about how this possible partnership might work. James, alongside his agent Rich Paul, was all ears.
After all these years of failed free agency pitches before Johnson took over as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations last February, all those players who walked away unimpressed by the previous regime and unconvinced about the Lakers’ future, Johnson knew what was at stake. Per James’ request, he had come alone.
Less than a day later, approximately 17 hours after Johnson had aced his first real free agency test, James’ agency, Klutch Sports Group, would announce that he was leaving Cleveland for a second time to sign a four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers.
“When (Lakers general manager) Rob (Pelinka) talked to his agent, Rich Paul, he wanted to talk to me one-on-one; that’s what he wanted,” Johnson explained on Friday in a conference call with reporters. “So I was happy to go and represent the Lakers, and talk basketball, talk strategy, talk winning, talk team, and talk players. All of it rolled into one.
“This guy is a basketball genius in terms of his mindset. And it was so funny, I think we both thought we were talking to ourselves when we’re looking at each other. We’re mirrors of each other when it comes to basketball mindset, championship DNA, and just playing the game the right way and also being a great teammate. That’s what it was. It was a lot of just basketball conversation. And as I told him, we want to get to the championship one day and he could be a big part of leading us back to that. That’s it.”
They talked about the Lakers roster, with James sharing his view of all its strengths and weaknesses while discussing how he might fit. They discussed Lakers coach Luke Walton – a former teammate of James’ during those early Cavaliers days – and his philosophies on both ends of the floor. As Johnson remembered, James highlighted the need for “accountability from the top…in terms of (Lakers owner) Jeanie Buss and all the way down to the coaching staff, from myself and (general manager) Rob (Pelinka) holding everybody accountable and to Luke holding the players accountable. He was big on accountability, and discipline and playing the game the right way.”
They talked about James’ view of the Lakers’ timeline, too, and that was where the real surprises began. All season long, the widespread belief was that James would only join the Lakers if they could also land another All-Star player. After all, they went just 35-47 last season with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram & Co. in place.
But longtime Lakers target Paul George had already decided to stay in Oklahoma City by the time Johnson walked through James’ door, and disgruntled San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard had remained as well. Yet still, here was James – who never signed a deal for more than two guaranteed seasons during his second stay in Cleveland – preaching patience.
“I asked him what his expectations are, and he said he understood where we were, as an organization, as a team, and what we’re building,” Johnson said. “He was really happy that Rob and I were not rushing, not making mistakes by rushing, and I told him that we had a three-year plan, we had a plan that we wanted to execute and that he could really take that plan to a whole ‘nother level.”
For the Lakers’ planning purposes, James’ decision to sign a deal with three guaranteed seasons and a player option in the fourth is vital.
“I think that (James) had analyzed our roster,” Johnson said. “He had analyzed the situation, and so he was willing to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a long-term commitment to the Laker organization.’ And so that’s what we needed as an organization. And then also, other players around the league can see that, and they’ll be willing to play with him, and come to the Lakers, because they know he’s going to be here. It also helps our players too, their own mindset that he’s going to be here as well.”
And he’ll be there, in large part, because Johnson found a way to make the most of this monumental meeting.
“I had watched so much film preparing for him,” Johnson said. “I wanted to watch when he first got to Cleveland, so I did that. I…watched a lot of film when he went to Miami (in 2010), and how he played and where he liked the ball.
“I prepared that way instead of a lot of bells and whistles, and things like that. It’s really about basketball. And then I went back to also watching film when he was (in Cleveland for a second time) so I could get a sense of LeBron then as a young man, then young in his career, and then also with Miami and how he was then, and how he’s playing now, so I could have a clear understanding so when I presented to him he’d understand that I did my homework, and it’s all about basketball and it’s all about winning. I’m sure that’s what he wanted, so that’s what I wanted to present.”
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