LeBron James embarks on the latest and possibly final chapter of his glittering career with the basketball world watching and wondering if the greatest player of his generation can deliver a Hollywood ending.
Ever since James confirmed his blockbuster move to the Los Angeles Lakers in July, sceptics have asked whether the 33-year-old’s move to California was motivated by basketball or his budding entertainment industry portfolio.
If James was truly determined to add more championship rings to his collection of three titles, the theory went, a more logical destination would have been Houston or Philadelphia, where his arrival might have elevated either franchise to potential super-team status.
Instead he opted for the Lakers, mired in mediocrity after the worst five-year period in club history and failing to make the playoffs since 2013.
“Strictly a business decision,” was the withering verdict of TNT commentator Charles Barkley on James’ move. “He’s on the downside of his career. He wants to be a big Hollywood mogul. He’s going to be driving by the beach every day.”
‘I play ball’
James and those familiar with his reasons for choosing the Lakers have dismissed the sceptics out of hand.
“My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers,” James said. “I’m a basketball player. I play ball, that’s what I do. That’s what I live by, and when I do it the way I do it, everything takes care of itself.”
And as James points out, his successful forays into the entertainment world, which have included movie roles and documentary and television producing, were well-established before his arrival in Tinseltown.
“My business took care of itself way before I became part of the Lakers franchise,” James said.
There is also plenty of evidence to refute the suggestion that James, who turns 34 in December, is a fading force.
During last season’s run to the NBA Finals, he frequently demonstrated that he remains capable of putting a team on his back, at times dragging Cleveland single-handedly over the line as they reached the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year.
Whether the component parts of the Lakers roster can give him enough support to provide a credible challenge this season remains to be seen, but certainly the oddsmakers in Las Vegas aren’t ruling it out.
Within hours of James announcing his decision to move to Los Angeles, the Lakers were installed as second favourites to win the NBA championship, with only the Golden State Warriors ahead of them.
A work in progress
Statistically, the odds favour James. In a 15-year career his teams have won 50 or more games in 11 seasons. His arrival should be good enough to take the Lakers, who finished with 35 wins last year, into the postseason.
Young talents such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma will surely benefit from James direction and on-court savvy.
James, however, has been careful to rein in early expectations about what the Lakers can achieve this year, warning that any challenge to Golden State’s domination of the league remains a distant speck on the horizon.
“We’ve got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” James said. “They can pick up right where they left off, starting with training camp. We’re picking up from scratch. So we have a long way to go.
“But we can’t worry about what Golden State is doing. Golden State is Golden State and they’re the champions. They’ve been together for a few years now.”
The early evidence of a James-inspired Lakers renewal have been encouraging however.
James put up 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 123-113 pre-season victory over the Warriors on Wednesday. A Lakers line-up without James then repeated the feat in a 119-105 win on Friday.
Lance Stephenson, who like James arrived in the off-season, is in no doubt about the four-time NBA MVP’s impact on the franchise.
“The focus and communications skills with everyone starts with LeBron,” Stephenson said. “His communications skills are incredible, and it’s contagious and it helps the whole team.”
James, meanwhile, has cautioned that the Lakers remain a work in progress.
“We’re a new ball club trying to get better. We’re all new to each other. We have to take our bumps and our bruises, there’s going to be good times and bad times. That’s what happens with a team that’s new,” he said.
“But if we continue to work the process, and sacrifice for each other and put in the work and the time everything will fall into place.”