It’s apparent that Lakers president Magic Johnson entered free agency with one target, LeBron James. And the Hall of Famer, Los Angeles civic legend, and business mogul relishes that James is ready to take on as much responsibility off the floor as a player can handle in helping to resurrect the once-proud franchise.
On the floor, Johnson hopes that James is able to get more rest and take on less responsibility than during his Cleveland years. The Lakers are not yet a finished product but Johnson knows the team’s young core along with some intriguing free agent additions will ease the load on James.
Immediately after James signed his three-year contract with the Lakers (which includes a fourth-year player option), Johnson asked him for suggestions on who the Lakers should sign next. The results were Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley, four players with mercurial pasts who have played major and positive roles on their teams in recent years.
“It’s about sitting with the world’s greatest player and picking his brain and saying, ‘Hey, you’re playing in the game today, just like when I was playing and Dr. [Jerry] Buss and Jerry West would come to me when we used to think about making moves,’ ” Johnson said. “I would always give out a couple of names. It’s going to be the same way here.
“We’re going to go to LeBron and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this guy? You know him. You play against him. You know the backstories and everything about the guy.’ That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s why you have guys who are superstars and you want to have a line of communication and you want to know what they’re thinking. [With] LeBron, we’ve done that with the guys that we’ve brought in and he’s done an excellent job of giving feedback and we will continue to do that.
“The ultimate decision-maker on the team and who we bring in is me. And then I take that to [primary owner] Jeanie [Buss] and then see what she says.”
It’s not like the Lakers signed a bunch of scrubs to fill salary slots. Rondo is coming off an impressive year with the Pelicans. McGee won two titles with the Warriors after being disregarded as a head case in previous stops. Stephenson will always be known for his antics, such as blowing in James’s ear during a playoff game years ago, but he has had his moments and is an agitator. Beasley, if anything, can score, which the Celtics can attest to as he burned them a few times during his years with the Knicks.
“It’s easy, we’re bringing in championship-caliber players. Listen, LeBron is not the only guy who has won championships,” Johnson said. “Rondo has won championships with Boston. JaVale McGee has won back-to-back championships with Golden State. They understand. They understand chemistry. They understand they’re going to be [playing on a team with] the ultimate locker-room leader, LeBron, and then we have a second guy who will be a great leader in Rondo. They will take care of the locker room. That’s what players do. Leaders take care of the locker room.”
Johnson has warned Lakers fans who are currently in nirvana over the James signing that the team will not turn into a juggernaut immediately. Johnson has surrounded James with many new players, in addition to the younger returning players. The roster has been completely reshaped, so some struggling should be expected.
“LeBron is the greatest leader in sports, so I think that’s going to be easy,” Johnson said of off-court chemistry. “The one thing we have to be, and the fans have to be is patient about is the chemistry on the court because all these guys will be matched with each other, playing with each other. It’s going to take us close to two months to understand how to play with each other. We saw that LeBron and Miami struggled for the first two months.
“I’m sure when he went back to Cleveland at the beginning, they struggled until they got to know each other. It will be no different here. We will struggle until we understand how to play with each other and where everybody likes the ball and those types of things, but eventually we will get it together and be one of the best teams in the West.”
There will be pressure on coach Luke Walton, who was hired by the previous Lakers regime but has earned the confidence and support of Johnson and Buss. The Lakers overachieved at times last season, playing well despite being painfully young. Walton’s assignment now gets far more difficult because there are expectations with James. Some experts are picking the Lakers to reach the Western Conference finals. The team’s first playoff appearance in five years is the minimum expectation.
“I don’t get into telling Luke what system to run, that’s up to him. I don’t want to misspeak or anything,” Johnson said. “But Luke is excited, he really is excited, and he’s got so many playmakers now with the ones coming in and also with the ones we already got. Look at [second-year guard and summer league MVP] Josh Hart. Guys better watch out because he’s going to be pushing to start. We told him to work on his ballhandling. The one thing that he was missing is that he couldn’t dribble very, very well. But now he has really attacked the defense off the dribble. He already had a good 3-point shot but it’s better now. He’s really playing awesome.”
What’s interesting is that even though Rondo was signed to compete for the starting point guard position, Johnson expects Rondo to also mentor second-year guard Lonzo Ball, his main competition. As he has aged, Rondo, 32, has embraced a mentor role because he realizes that’s part of his responsibility.
“When you think about Lonzo, I told everybody when I took over the job and when we drafted him the one thing that was missing was a mentor,” Johnson said. “We really didn’t have a mentor for him and help him how to play the point guard position, and now we have one in Rondo that can really tell him how to read defenses, how to defend certain guys in the league at that position, just talk basketball.
“This is really going to be an important season for Lonzo and I think Rondo will help him out a lot.”
The hope for Johnson is that the Lakers’ depth and youth will help preserve the 33-year-old James for a long playoff run. There were times during his second Cleveland tenure that James was asked to do practically everything and perhaps fatigue set in during long postseason runs, such as Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics.
“That’s what wears him out, that’s what wears him down. He doesn’t have to make every play now,” Johnson said. “We’ve got guys who can make plays on their own. He’ll get to relax on offense. We’re not going to be just throwing it to him. We’re going to be out running. This team will allow him to be fresh and ready for the playoffs.”
And finally, the long-term hope is that James can help mold the future of the organization as well as help recruit other major free agents.
“It’s going to be a partnership and commitment on both sides,” said Johnson. “He analyzed the situation and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a long-term commitment to the Laker organization. That’s what we need.’ Also, other players around the league can see that and want to come to the Lakers because they know he’s going to be here.”
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Another Holiday is on the horizon
Aaron Holiday is the third Holiday brother to play in the NBA, making them the third trio or quartet in league history, joining Jon, Skip, and Brent Barry and Major, Charles, Caldwell and Wil Jones.
Aaron is different than his taller, leaner brother, Justin, and more defensive-minded than Jrue. He is a scoring guard with point guard size. He carried UCLA to the NCAA Tournament in all three of his seasons, finally getting his due respect when Lonzo Ball left for the NBA before last season.
The Pacers made Holiday their first-round pick, hoping he can play both backcourt positions and turn into a dependable scorer. The Pacers have high expectations after surprisingly reaching the playoffs last season and then coming within a win of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Holiday was impressive during the Las Vegas Summer League but will have to compete for playing time in a backcourt that includes Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Tyreke Evans.
“Stay focused and just look for my opportunity,” Holiday said. “We’re going to be a great team this year so I’ll just try come in and help the way I can. I feel like everywhere I’ve gone there’s been high expectations, UCLA and now Indiana. I think we’ll be pretty good this year, that’s for sure.”
At the June draft, Justin and Jrue escorted their younger brother to the green room. But the road to success will not necessarily come easy, just as it was no cakewalk for his older brothers. Justin, 29, bounced around the league before sticking with the Bulls as a swingman and long-range shooter. Jrue, 28, was one of the league’s youngest players after he entered the draft in 2009 following his freshman season at UCLA, and he has slowly developed into a top-15 point guard.
“I’m just looking for the opportunity and whatever I get, I’m going to excel in it,” Aaron Holiday said. “I don’t really care about credit. I’m just playing, trying to help my team win. It was a fun time to be able to compete for a [draft] spot and I’m just happy I landed where I did.”
Roberts rewarded for righting ship
The NBA Players Association agreed to a four-year contract extension with executive director Michele Roberts, who has drawn raves for her part in the resurrection of the union after lawsuits and accusations of wrongdoing against predecessor Billy Hunter.
There has been zero controversy during the Roberts administration and she attributes her success to gaining the trust of the players. The process wasn’t easy.
Roberts spearheaded the new collective bargaining agreement as well as the unprecedented move of establishing full health care for former players who accrued a certain amount of service time in the NBA.
“When I got in four years ago, the players had every reason to be suspicious of me as they could possibly be,” she said. “They had every reason to question my motives and ability to deliver because they had just come out of a cycle where the situation involving my predecessor left a lot of the players quite skeptical about the union.
“Quite obviously I was elected and so the guys that gave me the opportunity were prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt, but there were a lot [who didn’t] and I had to quibble with the reality that I had to create a system that I and the team that we assembled were going to be interested in the best interest of the players.”
Four years ago there was wide mistrust and disenchantment with the players’ union, with many of the league’s more powerful players uninterested in participating in union issues. Now, players such as LeBron James and Chris Paul have taken leadership roles with other younger players such as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown becoming player reps by choice, not by default.
“It did not happen overnight, the players did not necessarily think they could trust me or my team until we demonstrated that we were worthy of it,” Roberts said. “I do think we’ve turned the corner.
“We’re not done but I do think we’ve turned the corner and we are at a place where I’m proud of the work that we do for the players.”
Roberts, the first female president of a major professional sports union, and her teamwork with NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been unprecedented considering the tenuous relationship between their predecessors, Hunter and David Stern.
It’s been a victorious four years for the players, who have seen their salaries soar to all-time levels as the leagues continues to flourish just eight years after many owners were complaining about financial losses, leading to the 2011 lockout.
The Celtics will enter the 2018-19 season with the ninth-highest payroll in the NBA and it is expected to rise after the season. Boston has three players in the final year of their contracts — Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis, and Brad Wanamaker. Morris, one of the league’s biggest bargains at $5 million, is likely to command a 300 percent increase on his next contract. Two players have opt-outs and they are two important pieces: Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Horford is expected to opt out next summer and likely sign a long-term extension with the Celtics, perhaps at a reduced price for the contract security. Irving is also expected to opt out and become a restricted free agent, where he will demand a maximum contract. Irving will be eligible to sign a five-year deal with the Celtics and a four-year pact with other clubs. And as has been well documented, Terry Rozier is eligible for a contract extension before the regular season begins, but the Celtics are likely to wait and allow Rozier to become a restricted free agent next summer. The Celtics also have until the regular season to pick up the contract option on second-year big man Guerschon Yabusele, who will have to fight for minutes this coming season . . . The most intriguing free agent on the market remains 38-year-old veteran Jamal Crawford, who opted out of his contract with the Timberwolves with the hopes of signing a lucrative deal with a contender. There are a number of capable free agents still waiting for deals, but these veterans may have to accept minimum deals or perhaps even training camp invitations with the market having dried up this summer. A good fit for Crawford could be the 76ers, who lost long-range shooters Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to free agency. The waiting game will carry into September and is an unfortunate byproduct of escalating salaries and the elimination of the NBA middle class. Other notable free agents are Corey Brewer, Mario Chalmers, Joe Johnson, Ty Lawson, Ramon Sessions, Nick Young, and Tyrone Wallace. The Celtics may have been interested in a player such as Crawford but they decided to sign Jabari Bird to an NBA contract, promoting him from a two-way deal. Boston has 15 contracts and its training camp invites are more than likely headed for the G-League affiliate in Maine . . . Finally, former Celtics summer league guard Pierria Henry decided to sign with BC Unics in Kazan in the highest-caliber league in Russia.