More than just a promotion, LeBron’s shift to point guard is accompanied by a weighty Los Angeles reputation. Playing point guard for the Lakers is a designation few are granted.
In what will likely be seen as an attempt to reclaim the gargantuan Los Angeles spotlight, the Lakers announced on Monday that LeBron James will be the team’s starting point guard in the 2019–20 season. The announcement came two days after the Finals MVP and self-proclaimed “Board Man” Kawhi Leonard decided to kidnap Paul George and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Everything James does is held in a vice grip under the world’s strongest microscope. That’s become doubly apparent in Los Angeles, where his plans to star in Space Jam 2 and other business ventures have clouded public perception of the future Hall of Famer.
When the NBA app pushed out the notification at 3:20 p.m. on Monday, I was lying on my back, trying to soothe my sciatic troubles. The news was interesting, but I didn’t shoot up as you might expect. In fact I swiped it off of my screen and continued to lament the fact that I am a 26-year-old with a 70-year-old’s back.
Despite its intentions, the Laker’s announcement didn’t surprise me. Any half-decent basketball fan knew that James has been playing point guard for at least the last 16 years. His ball-dominance is why Mario Chalmers got yelled at in Miami (Chalmers had nothing to do!). His court vision is why Kyrie Irving’s assist numbers dipped in 2015, and why Tyronn Lue preferredto start James at point over Jose Calderon. (Admittedly, there are a lot of reasons to choose James over Calderon).
But the more I thought about it, the more the announcement seemed strange. Rarely do teams broadcast these types of moves, let alone two months before they can be put into practice. Why would the Lakers prime us to believe James is their point guard?
The most apparent answer is advertising. The Lakers lost out on what could have been a league defining acquisition. Unifying James, Leonard and Anthony Davis under one, purple and gold flag could have unleashed catastrophic damage on a league still reeling from a decade of super teams. Few teams were thought to be on Leonard’s free agency wish list. And only the Lakers could have boasted three First Team All-NBAers at tip-off. Though the Lakers won’t be hurting without Leonard, that they struck out on his loyalty is damaging for a brand that endured public relations Hell over the last two years.
Officially debuting LeBron as a point guard, then, served the Marketing Department as much as it did the basketball operations staff. James’ name will only appear two slots lower in the pregame booklet, but the chance to say, “We showed the league LeBron’s full potential” is legendary. As the starting point guard there’d be no question about leadership. If it wasn’t clear enough through the Davis trade, which express mailed a bundle of young stars far away from South Figueroa Street, James and his newly christened position would decisively lead the Lakers into its new era.
Never one to forget his forefathers, LeBron’s new title also has legacy implications. In 1989, Michael Jordan became a point guard. At that point, the Chicago Bulls weren’t quite Jordan’s Bulls. The team had only won 50 games once through Jordan’s first five years in the league. He helped them make the playoffs, but first round exits were the norm.
Dismayed by a struggling offense and egged on by a pulled groin (sound familiar?) Jordan pleaded his case to start at point to head coach Doug Collins. Collins obliged. What followed was one of the most Michael Jordanest performances Michael Jordan ever gave. Under his direction, Jordan wielded his newfound responsibility to chisel out seven consecutive triple doubles. From March 25 through April 6, Jordan helped the Bulls to a 5–2 record. He took a break from the triple doubles on April 7, against the Detroit Pistions in a back to back split between the Motor and Windy Cities, only to drop three straight following the Pistions’ loss. Though his 11-game run ended in a 5–6 record, the story is indicative of Jordan’s, “You think I can’t? Watch me,” mentality.
James carries that same mental tic. He defied the odds in Cleveland in 2016, dismantling the 73-win Warriors’ 3–1 Finals lead to bring Cleveland its first title in half a century. Really, he defied the odds the day he made it out of Akron. Finally being listed as a point guard is his way of defying the odds again, though this time, they skew heavily in his favor.
Those legacy implications extend into the importance being a point guard in Los Angeles history. The jerseys of two point guards hang from the Staples Center’s rafters: Jerry West and Magic Johnson. The former is quite possibly the most important man in basketball history, serving as not only the logo, but the architect of some of the most memorable franchises ever (including your new favorite Clippers team). The latter is a man who could do no wrong. Magic’s nickname glistened like the city he represented. He is the progenitor of the single most iconic era for a basketball team, the Showtime Lakers, which is rivaled only by the steady guiding hand of Gregg Popovich’s millennial Spurs, the Celtics of the 60s and Michael Jordan’s 90s Bulls.
West and Johnson were as dissonant as oil and water in terms of their role as point guards. West was the inspiration for some of the game’s feistiest guards — Steven Nash, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton. Johnson was more modern. His 6-foot-9 frame would have been embraced by the positionally fluid lineups of the 2010s.
As a point guard, James becomes one of the three greatest Lakers to ever uphold that mantle. Like West and Johnson, his game has and will transcend eras. James is a cutout for future generations. No, there will likely never be another LeBron, but his influence, especially as a point guard, will be exalted at the apex of basketball mythology.
And the Lakers can say, “We did that.” Not the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor the Miami Heat. Los Angeles will have the purest version of Lebron, whom they can promote is the greatest version of one of the greatest players ever.
Maybe that change in job description is a pretty big deal after all.