NBA history shows that when LeBron James became a free agent in 2018, he followed the path many stars had traveled. James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, joining legends such as Shaquille O’Neal and Jamaal Wilkes in putting pen to paper to come to Hollywood. However, James had a chance to chart a new course with a team still hunting for its first title.
Things have worked out for James in LA. After an injury-plagued first season with the Lakers, The King and his court ruled the NBA bubble in 2020 en route to the team’s first championship in a decade. Health woes derailed the title defense in 2020–21, but James and the Lakers are among the title favorites with a new star on board in Russell Westbrook and veteran know-how in abundance.
LeBron James to the Lakers was a long time coming
The Lakers have history. Their 17 NBA championships (or 12, depending on how you count them) match the Boston Celtics as the most in NBA history. No franchise has had more titles since the merger with the ABA in 1976 than LA’s 10.
But the arrival of LeBron James in Tinseltown came at a critical juncture in the franchise’s history. Since winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, the organization fell on hard times. Blockbuster deals in 2012 to bring in two-time MVP Steve Nash and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard fell flat. When Kobe Bryant ruptured an Achilles’ tendon late in the season, the Lakers absorbed an embarrassing first-round sweep.
From their first season in the old Basketball Association of America in 1948 through 2013, the club missed the playoffs just seven times and only once in back-to-back seasons. So a six-year playoff drought for the Lakers was like the collapse of the New York Yankees’ dynasty in the mid-1960s. It was almost inconceivable.
Since the arrival of Frank Vogel in 2019, LA is 94-49 in the regular season. Despite James and Anthony Davis missing significant time last season, the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors in the inaugural play-in tournament to get the No. 7 seed in the West before falling in six games to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
Along with Westbrook, James and Davis are the foundation of an aging club seeking LeBron’s fifth ring. But The King had a chance to team up with another dominant big man in 2018.
The Denver Nuggets fired their shot to get LeBron James
Josh Kroenke is the son of Denver Nuggets governor Stan Kroenke and manages the family’s sports empire. That includes the Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. The group gets some kicks from the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer and English Premier League power Arsenal.
The younger Kroenke is also friends with LeBron James, and when the four-time NBA MVP hit the open market in 2018, James got a recruiting call from a Rocky Mountain high phone number.
In 2018, James talked about the conversation with the media, per Nick Kosmider of The Athletic:
“The owner is a very good friend of mine, and he discussed it sometimes to me. Also, he sent me one of those throwback jerseys, the white ones with the mountains I believe is on it, and he said, ‘You’d look good in one of these.’”LeBron James in 2018
Ultimately, James never seriously entertained the idea of going to Denver. Instead, all we can do is imagine what a playmaking tandem of James and Nikola Jokić could do.
Two exceptional supersized playmakers would make the Denver Nuggets challenging to beat
Jokić was NBA MVP in 2020–21 after averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and an astonishing 8.3 assists per game. The title as best passing big man in NBA history often goes to Bill Walton, but Jokić is rapidly claiming that title.
At 6-foot-11, the big Serbian is redefining the role of running an offense. Jokić is often the primary ballhandler for the Nuggets and kept the team in the hunt after the team’s point guard on paper, Jamal Murray, tore an ACL in April 2021.
LeBron James has been the offense’s focal point as a playmaker everywhere he’s been in his 18 NBA seasons. The idea of James and Jokić feeding teammates is tantalizing.
Alas, Denver has never been a destination city for free agents. No disrespect to Antonio McDyess, Marcus Camby, or Kenyon Martin. But when those are the highest-profile wins for the franchise in the NBA’s silly season, you’re not exactly on anyone’s speed dial.
A king and a joker would be a pretty good starting poker hand. But LeBron James saw the bright lights of the Sunset Strip and flew right over the Rockies on the way.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.