LeBron James is signing with the the Los Angeles Lakers, marking an incredible new chapter for arguably the league’s greatest player ever.
For Charlotte, it means less regular season torment. LeBron has beaten the Hornets 26 times in a row, or, in other words, for the entirety of Kemba Walker’s career. Playing in the Western Conference means only facing James twice a season rather than three or four, and while it doesn’t guarantee two extra wins, it at least takes away two guaranteed losses.
But aside from what should mean the slightest of easier schedules next season, how else could LeBron’s departure from the Eastern Conference affect Charlotte?
Star free agent signings often have ripple effects, and on first glance it’s obvious the balance of star power in the NBA is even more imbalanced. That’s bad news for the host of good teams in the Western Conference, but potentially liberating for teams out east. Suddenly, the Raptors, Celtics, and Pacers won’t have to worry about the inevitable torment of losing to James in the playoffs (at least until the NBA Finals anyways). The 76ers and Bucks can continue to rise without fear of being knocked out early by James as well. Hell, John Wall and the Wizards might even be able to reach the Conference Finals.
There’s suddenly a freedom in the Eastern Conference that the remaining contenders need to take full advantage of before Adam Silver re-aligns the playoff seeding based on the best 16 records.
The effects for Charlotte could go in a couple of dramatically different directions. Assuming the Hornets stay largely intact, and assuming the Cavaliers decide there’s no use continuing on as is, you’d have to think that Cleveland will look towards a rebuilding project, which will open up a spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
And I know, I know, this is wishful thinking, but if we are taking Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego at their word — that the intention is to compete for a playoff spot — LeBron’s exit is addition by subtraction in favor of the Hornets. It’s certainly not enough to shift the tide, but given how close the margins of error have been for Charlotte the past two seasons, they’ll take anything that falls in their favor.
The other, more dramatic, effect is whether Walker ends up on the Lakers’s radar. He hasn’t been mentioned as a target by official channels, so take all this as speculation. Kawhi Leonard heads the Lakers list of targets, and I’d wager it’s only a matter of time before that goes through. The Spurs reportedly don’t want Lonzo Ball though, which means that a suitable package in San Antonio’s eyes would include the likes of Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and/or Kyle Kuzma.
If the Lakers acquire Leonard and without dealing Ball, he could end up as the centerpiece of a trade involving Walker. Charlotte would ideally want future draft picks and another young piece assuming one is available. My guess is that they would say no if Lonzo was the only player or if the picks involved weren’t worth trading for.
Now I’m sure I’ve lost some of you already, and I completely understand. There may be incentive to ship out Ball due to the headaches his father has caused the Lakers, but he’s also last season’s 2nd overall pick. He needs to improve his shooting, but the rest of his game is promising, and he could develop nicely around the likes of James and Leonard.
But let’s flash forward to next February. The Lakers are good, and even great on occasion, but they sit third in the Western Conference and were recently blown by the Warriors for the second straight time. There will be pressure to add another star, and Walker would be the ideal player. If the Hornets are continuing to struggle and the playoffs aren’t looking like a reality, a deal like this potentially makes sense for both sides.
A lot of could depend on how the Leonard situation plays out. If the Lakers aren’t able to trade for Kawhi, they’ll certainly turn their attention elsewhere. DeMarcus Cousins’s name has popped up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Walker’s did as well. In this scenario, the Hornets would have their pick of young Lakers players, which may be too enticing to pass up (and think if they could add in Batum—okay I’ll stop).
The point is, LeBron may be out west, but he may not be done impacting the Hornets. How extensive his impact is, though, remains to be seen.