HE WILL LIKELY have his number retired in Miami, deserves a statue in Cleveland and has left an indelible mark on Team USA. But now, 17 years in and past his 35th birthday, the word “Lakers” across LeBron James‘ chest seems to have inspired a transformation.
James has embraced playing a position, point guard, he’d previously shunned. He has reversed an in-season strategy of a slow, and sometimes sluggish, buildup to the postseason — a technique developed during an eight-year run of Finals appearances — to one complete with postseason-level defensive effort well before Christmas. And he has done it with public and full support of his team, abandoning past approaches of occasionally bullying his way to roster moves.
James, the Laker, has become bonded to his team’s front office and ownership like never before in his career.
Simply, this is not the James we’ve come to know.
THE BUSS FAMILY has a long history of deep connections with star players. Perhaps no owner and star were closer than Magic Johnson and Dr. Jerry Buss. The family’s relationship with Kobe Bryant, even with its rough patches, was a 20-year success story.
And the same talent has been passed down to current controlling owner Jeanie Buss. Those close to James describe his relationship with Jeanie and her lead executive, Linda Rambis, as the most connected he has been with ownership in his career. Though he has been with the team for less than two years, unexpected turbulence has brought them together — a diametric shift from situations in James’ past.
In October, when the Lakers found themselves in the midst of a geopolitical quagmire between the NBA and China, franchise leadership and James leaned on each other. He served not only as a guiding voice with his teammates as they holed up in their Shanghai hotel but also with Adam Silver when the commissioner arrived. In a crucial meeting with players and Silver, James advocated for players to be protected from having to speak for the league on the sensitive situation while working toward a path to save two Lakers-Nets preseason games.
Then, in the wake of Bryant’s death, James worked alongside Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka to help manage his teammates in the emotional days. While Buss and Pelinka provided support to the Bryant family, James connected with team members, and then Silver directly, as he pushed for the postponement of a game against the LA Clippers because he didn’t believe the team was emotionally ready to play.
Some of the roots of this alignment can be traced back to last season, when Johnson’s resignation shook the franchise. The Lakers subsequently failed to land their top head-coaching choice to replace Luke Walton — including an inability to close a deal with Tyronn Lue, whom James later said he would have been “ecstatic” to play for again. And that followed Johnson ripping Pelinka on national television just days before the start of a vital free-agency period.
Through all of the Lakers’ self-inflicted drama, James remained silent — not even a passive-aggressive grumble on social media — as he gave the team space to wo