The comments that JaVale McGee made earlier this week about wanting to spend the rest of his career as a member of the Golden State Warriors have not aged particularly well.
ESPN is reporting that McGee signed a one-year minimum contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, just hours after LeBron James made his decision to join the Lakers.
There are multiple ways to interpret this McGee development. Let’s start with the most constructive and work our way down towards the most emotionally cathartic and even pessimistic.
Let’s assume that McGee wasn’t being hyperbolic in his earlier comments and actually did want to stay with the Warriors for the rest of his career.
Team management had been dropping some pretty major hints that the team was looking to get younger for next season.
It’s likely that the team envisions guys like Jordan Bell and Damian Jones playing a much larger role for the team next season.
Those two low-post guys are in their early 20s, while McGee is going to turn 31 during this upcoming regular season.
This point of view interprets McGee leaving as being a team decision instead of a McGee decision, which could very well be accurate.
McGee would have likely had a decreased role next season if he had returned to the Warriors, and maybe he wanted a chance to play more somewhere else.
He has won back-to-back championships the last two years and resurrected his career. Maybe he wanted to move on to a larger role on another team.
The Lakers give McGee a chance to get more playing time, as their top center under contract before this acquisition was probably Ivica Zubac.
These factors encompass a very tempered analysis of why this happened, but there are also some issues that are still troubling.
The Lakers offered him a minimum contract. The main question that emerges from all this is if the Warriors even offered him a contract at all.
If they didn’t, that’s a gigantic endorsement from the front office and coaching staff towards guys like Bell and Jones.
If they did, then McGee essentially made the decision that he would rather play for the Lakers than the Warriors if both offered the same amount of money.
Again, if this is what happened, then the less personal way to take this was that the Lakers gave him a chance for a larger role.
However, this decision could represent a larger paradigm shift within the league that is occurring in the aftermath of the James decision. This is where the pessimism sets in.
Let’s make something clear before going forward: the Warriors still deserve to be the definitive championship favorites for next season.
However, James is one of the few players in this league who’s influential enough to make any team he plays for suddenly relevant.
The Lakers missed the playoffs last season, but James instantly makes them a championship contender. He’s that good.
There’s a difference between being championship favorites and being contenders, though. James at least puts the Lakers in the discussion, albeit on the periphery.
A strategy the Warriors had going into this free agency period was that they’d utilize their prestige and success in order to attract veterans willing to take a minimum contract to compete for a championship.
In international relations, this is known as Soft Power. When applied in a basketball free agency setting, it’s basically when a team uses its credibility more than monetary resources to attract free agents.
For example, legendary franchises possess more Soft Power than newer or relatively unsuccessful franchises. Think of championship banners hanging in the rafters or iconic players who’ve been members of the franchise at some point.
When decently competitive, the Lakers arguably possess the greatest amount of Soft Power in the league, although it lays dormant during stretches of irrelevancy.
The Lakers mystique is best utilized when their lineup is good, and the beauty of a player like James is that he instantly makes any lineup he joins good if not great.
The Lakers not only have their historical success working in their favor, but also the geographic location in which they play.
Los Angeles is one of the media capitals of the world and associated with the glitz and glamor that comes with stardom.
Now that James has joined the Lakers and made them once again relevant from a 2018 basketball perspective, it’s going to be fascinating to observe how other free agents react.
Prior to this decision, the contemporary team possessed the greatest amount of Soft Power in the NBA was the Warriors, and it wasn’t even close.
Veterans felt compelled to sacrifice personal earnings to join the Warriors, more so than any other team in the league.
That’s perhaps the biggest indicator of Soft Power at a present moment in the league, and the Lakers might have just surpassed the Warriors in that category.
It’ll be impossible to determine until more of the free agency period has proceeded, but it’s the first time in a while that it’s even debatable.
The thing that held James back before in terms of attracting discounted free agents like this was playing in Cleveland.
Players who wanted to chase a ring with James but were deterred by the locational factor of Cleveland no longer have that type of impediment.
An interesting feature to monitor this free agency period from here on out will be where veterans who take a minimum contract well below their market value end up going.
There may be players who would rather play in Los Angeles with James than play in Oakland with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Obviously, the Warriors are a better team, but there has always been a powerful allure attached to Los Angeles, and suddenly the Lakers are contenders again.
It’ll be fascinating to see if there’s a veteran player the Warriors target for the minimum who ends up signing with the Lakers for the minimum instead.
It’s all hypothetical at this point, but this James decision might present some challenges for the Warriors the rest of this offseason.
As for McGee, he is an insanely athletic rim protector and finisher around the hoop. His presence will be missed. Now it’s up to guys like Bell and Jones to fill the void that McGee leaves.