Fans of the Los Angeles Lakers can be forgiven if they are not exactly bowled over by the news that LeBron James, a once-in-a-generation talent, decided to join their team. After all, they have been watching this scenario play out since the late 1960s.
The Minneapolis Lakers of the 1950s became a powerhouse dynasty after acquiring George Mikan when a competing league he was playing in folded. The franchise continued to be relevant thanks to homegrown stars like Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, but starting with the acquisition of Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, the team has shown a knack for knowing when their homegrown talent needs an injection of star power.
James, whom they agreed to terms with on Sunday, is one of four players, each of whom joined the Lakers reasonably close to their prime, who have a legitimate claim at being among the N.B.A.’s 10 best players of all time.
There are those who might try to include Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in a list of the team’s acquisition highlights, but beyond Howard — a rental who did not work out for a variety of reasons — those players had already lost several steps by the time they arrived.
A look at the Lakers’ Big Four acquisitions reveals some similar themes in terms of the player deciding Los Angeles was the right home for them, their previous teams having been fairly powerless to stop them, and, in what could be good news for current Lakers fans disappointed by the team’s current five-season playoff drought, they led to championships.
Acquired via trade, July 9, 1968
Age at his Lakers debut: 32
Accomplishments: 10-time All-Star, four-time most valuable player, one-time champion entering his 10th season.
Chamberlain, who in 1968 was the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer, was considered the finest offensive player the game had ever seen and was coming off a season in which he had averaged 24.3 points, 23.8 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. His Philadelphia 76ers had been knocked out of the playoffs in the second round, and the knock against him at that point was that he was not a winner like Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. He wanted to move along, so he joined a Lakers team that already had Elgin Baylor and Jerry West but had thus far been unable to top the Celtics in the finals.
The trade: The Lakers sent to the 76ers Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff
In his coach’s (dramatically understated) words: “Over all we’re going to be quite a bit stronger,” said Butch van Breda Kolff, the Lakers coach. “We had our rebounding problems last year, but I don’t envision them this year.”
How it turned out: Chamberlain played the final five seasons of his career for the Lakers, going 1 for 3 in finals appearances.
Acquired via trade, June 16, 1975
Age at his Lakers debut: 29
Accomplishments: Six-time All-Star, three-time most valuable player and one-time champion entering his seventh season.
Abdul-Jabbar was a force of nature for the Milwaukee Bucks, leading the team to an N.B.A. title in just the third year of the team’s existence, and he was coming off a season in which he had averaged 30 points, 14 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. But with Oscar Robertson having retired, the Bucks missed the playoffs in 1974-75 and Abdul-Jabbar badly wanted out of the small city, saying “I’m not criticizing the people here, but Milwaukee is not what I’m all about. The things I relate to aren’t in Milwaukee.” The Lakers, beyond playing in the city where Abdul-Jabbar went to college, were a bit of an odd choice, as Gail Goodrich was the team’s only truly significant player at that point, and the veteran of the 1972 title-winning team was already 32, but Abdul-Jabbar had them back to winning titles by his fifth season with the team.
The trade: The Bucks sent Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley to the Lakers for Junior Bridgeman, Elmore Smith, Brian Winters and Dave Meyers.
Quotation from one of the guys he was traded for: “Frankly, I think the Bucks really got the best of the deal,” Bridgeman said.
How it turned out: Abdul-Jabbar played his final 14 seasons for the Lakers, winning five titles and retiring as the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer, a record he still holds.
Signed as a free agent, July 18, 1996
Age at his Lakers debut: 24
Accomplishments: Four-time All-Star and one-time N.B.A. finalist entering his fifth season.
O’Neal, despite being so young, was already one of the most dominant players in the game, and was coming off a season in which he had averaged 26.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game. He had formed a terrific partnership with Anfernee Hardaway and had already led the Orlando Magic to one finals appearance, and in his final season with that team took them to the Eastern Conference finals. Orlando made the largest offer to O’Neal, but the big center yearned for something new and he chose instead to sign with the Lakers. At the time, he had no way of knowing that the rookie the team had just drafted, Kobe Bryant, would prove to be a perfect complement to him on the court (regardless of how poorly they got along everywhere else).
The deal: He signed a seven-year contract worth $121 million.
Quotation from the man himself (which would prove fairly prophetic): “To me, change is for the good,” O’Neal said. “I’m a military child, used to moving every three or four years.”
How it turned out: O’Neal stuck around for the full seven years, but by that point the relationship between him and Bryant had severely deteriorated. The team traded him to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom and two draft picks, but not before he and Bryant had led them to three championships.
Agreed to terms as a free agent, July 1, 2018
Age at his Lakers debut: 33
Accomplishments: Fourteen-time All-Star, four-time most valuable player and three-time champion going into his 16th season.
James had what could be considered his finest season last year, averaging 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists a game and leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their fourth consecutive appearance in the N.B.A. finals. Unfortunately, everything around him was wrong. The roster was incomplete after the Kyrie Irving trade and a midseason shake-up failed to fix it. James often felt like a one-man show — never more so than an the end of Game 1 of the finals when he watched helplessly as J.R. Smith dribbled out Cleveland’s chances of winning — and it became clear that a change of scenery was attractive even after he had ended the city’s long pro sports championship drought. In the end, Los Angeles was where he wanted to live.
The deal: He signed a four-year contract worth $154 million.
Quotation from James’s social media account: “Thank you Northeast Ohio for an incredible 4 seasons. This will always be home.”
How it will turn out: There is far too much roster maneuvering to possibly predict that, but with Paul George having re-upped in Oklahoma City, building a roster that can compete with the Golden State Warriors will be difficult.