The Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors have never seen one of their players honored with a First-Team All-NBA selection.
No Atlanta Hawk has been chosen for the First Team since 1986, and it’s been a decade since a member of the Orlando Magic has been chosen for any of the three teams. Neither the Jazz nor the Pistons have had an All-Star starter in the past decade.
Eight teams have never produced an MVP, and lest you believe this is strictly a small-market problem, the Brooklyn Nets are on that list. The Los Angeles Clippers would be too, were it not for the trophy Bob McAdoo won in their Buffalo Braves days.
All of this is meant to make a very simple point: do not take superstars for granted. Teams frequently go decades without having one. There are teams that, to this day, have never had a player as good as LeBron James is right now.
That is not a reality the Los Angeles Lakers are used to. Aside from the four-year gap between George Mikan and Jerry West and the five-year interlude between the Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal eras, they really didn’t go without a superstar for any significant stretch of the first seven decades of their existence. They once cherished that fact. They paid an aging Kobe Bryant tens of millions of dollars he no longer deserved as both an early retirement present and an investment in his then-unnamed replacement. Come to the Lakers, the Bryant extension screamed, because we take care of our superstars.
That pitch fell on deaf ears. Carmelo Anthony said no in 2014. LaMarcus Aldridge followed suit in 2015. Kevin Durant didn’t even grant them a meeting in 2016. Bryant’s twilight and the years that followed were unequivocally the worst in franchise history. No Laker team prior had ever missed the playoffs more than two seasons in a row. They spent a half-decade in the lottery before James arrived. Had he landed elsewhere, the Lakers might be coming up on a decade outside of the postseason. It’s easy to forget this now, but the Lakers may well have been one LeBron James away from becoming the Sacramento Kings. They still might be.
Instead, James made them a viable home for Anthony Davis, whom the Lakers paid a handsome price to acquire. They never hesitated to pay it. “When a player of LeBron’s stature puts his trust in the organization,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said in 2020, “I think there’s an implicit bilateral trust going back, saying: ‘We’re going to do everything we can to put you in a position to win more championships, because that’s what you’re about.'”
That bilateral trust paid off. The Lakers won the 2020 championship. They started the next season 28-13. And then Solomon Hill dove into LeBron’s ankle and everything went to hell.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. James played a major part in the disastrous decision to trade for Russell Westbrook, but that option likely wouldn’t have existed if Pelinka hadn’t refused to include Talen Horton-Tucker in a Kyle Lowry trade. They might not have fallen from No. 1 to No. 16 on defense if Jeanie Buss had paid Alex Caruso. Frank Vogel’s rotations remain as inexplicable as ever. Kurt Rambis might be the most powerful man in this paragraph. And nobody wants to take responsibility for any of this.
Pelinka claimed, reportedly falsely, that James and Davis were fine with the team standing pat at the trade deadline. James spent All-Star Weekend flirting with the Cavs, making arrangements for his son’s future and praising every general manager except his own. The Lakers are leaking potshots at their stars with one overriding sentiment emerging: we are not going to sacrifice our young players, our picks and our cash to get you out of a problem you created. That bilateral trust has eroded. The Lakers weren’t willing to do everything they could to put James in a position to win a championship at the deadline. They might not do so in the offseason either.
That doesn’t mean a breakup is imminent. Frankly, the Lakers couldn’t trade James if they wanted to. He’d hold the threat of retirement over any interested parties. At best he’d be able to direct himself to the destination of his choice at well below market value. More likely he’d scare off any suitors before negotiations even got that far. James likes being in Los Angeles. All things being equal, he’d probably prefer to stay there. If he doesn’t, he’s going to leave on his terms.
That’s a possibility the Lakers aren’t nearly as prepared for as they seem to think. Should the Lakers refuse to invest assets in moving off of Russell Westbrook and rebooting this team in the offseason, the 2022-23 campaign would essentially become a lame-duck year. They’d be positioning themselves for a 2023 offseason with only Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker currently on their books.
That would leave them with ample cap space in an NBA increasingly incapable of providing free agents worth spending it on. The modern transaction market is defined by extensions and trades. After five 2019 All-Stars changed teams through free agency in the following offseason, only one All-Star, the 35-year-old Lowry, has done so since. Only two 2022 All-Stars are even eligible for free agency: James Harden, who has already made his move, and Zach LaVine, who’d have to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to leave a big-market contender. The days of protracted July courtships are over. Players pick their destinations years before free agency or years after they’ve already locked in maximum money. Landing stars is about creating a hospitable environment for them and having the assets to extract them from their previous employer. The Lakers, right now, might not have either.
Los Angeles has always appealed to the NBA’s best players, but it wasn’t enough to land a difference-maker during Bryant’s decline and the years that followed. James only arrived when the cupboard had been restocked with enough young talent to eventually trade for Davis. Even with no further moves, it’s going to take years before that is the case again. The Lakers exhausted their war chest landing Davis and Westbrook. They’ll control their own first-round pick in only one of the next four drafts. Davis will be 32 when those obligations have been met and the Lakers can even begin rebuilding through the draft.
This all assumes that Davis would be interested in staying with the post-James Lakers. LeBron is the one who recruited him to Los Angeles, after all. He, like James, is represented by Klutch Sports, and the Lakers were the beneficiaries of Rich Paul’s influence when he steered Davis their way in the first place. Incurring his wrath when Davis can escape his contract through a player option in 2024 could prove disastrous in ways that extend well beyond the two famous Lakers that he currently represents.
Klutch Sports represents a quarter of the pre-injury replacement 2022 All-Star roster: James, LaVine Draymond Green, Trae Young, Darius Garland and DeJounte Murray. Paul is the NBA’s most notorious super agent, but he’s hardly the only one. More and more of the league’s top players are gravitating towards a smaller number of agencies. It’s a sensible move on their part. The more powerful their agent, the more power they can wield over their organizations. Maintaining positive relationships with these power brokers is essential. The Lakers already have an idea of what happens when you don’t. Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell are both repped by CAA, who has six more 2022 All-Stars in their deep stable of talent. Both left the Lakers on bad terms. At around the same time, the Lakers hoped to land another prominent CAA client: Paul George. They weren’t even granted a meeting.
Those meetings don’t need to take place anymore. They’ve been replaced with year-round gossip. Players and agents do their digging in the months and years before decisions are ever made. They settle on new homes when they trust that their needs both on and off of court will be met, and right now, anyone potentially interested in relocating to Los Angeles is probably asking themselves the same question: if the Lakers can defy LeBron, why should I trust them to take care of me?
It’s a startling 180 from where the Lakers stood only a few years ago. Above all else, this was a franchise that catered to superstars. Now they’re fighting a cold war against the brightest star of them all, and he wears their own jersey. Neither possible future appears especially bright. Bend to LeBron’s will and you’ve sacrificed your draft capital for most of the decade. Don’t and you find yourself right back where you were a decade or so earlier.
Disturbingly lost in all of this future fear is a much more optimistic present than this miserable season suggests. The Lakers have LeBron James right now. He might not be the single best player in basketball anymore, but he’s not far off either. No matter how you slice it, it could be quite some time before the Lakers find another player this good. The same goes for Davis.
Even if they’re injury risks, even if they’re physically declining due to age, even if it’s their fault things have gotten this bad in the first place, they still represent by far this franchise’s best chance at winning a championship in the near future. They were the two best players in the Orlando bubble. Only a year ago, lineups featuring both outscored opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions. Neither roster included a third star. Just put enough shooting and defense around those two and you have a chance to win at a high level. Finding that shooting and defense should be reasonably possible with Westbrook’s $47 million expiring contract and a couple of first-round picks.
That’s a chance that teams like the Pacers and Hornets rarely get. Ask either of their fanbases if they’d sacrifice a couple of extra draft picks for a genuine chance to win the whole thing right away. If the Lakers are taking their historical success for granted, well, they won’t be able to for very much longer. Given how deep a hole they’ve already dug for themselves, they probably aren’t going to win all that much in the years following James’ eventual departure regardless of what form that departure takes. Their chance to win lasts as long as James is still on their team. His chance to win lasts as long as he’s able to step on a basketball court. As painful as this realization might be, the Lakers need LeBron far more than he needs them because once he’s gone, it could be a long, long time before they find someone this good again.