LeBron James played along initially, but he became tired of the subject of his struggles in Salt Lake City. After a December loss to the Jazz, he delivered a parting shot: When his career ends, nobody will remember those seven straight defeats at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
How about nine, though? Eleven? Thirteen? And that’s not even counting playoff games.
LeBron’s SLC losing streak potentially will keep growing and become more meaningful, now that he’s ticketed to make two annual visits — in most seasons, anyway — with the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s the dismissive view of James’ move from Cleveland to L.A. in free agency, from a Utah perspective.
This is the reality of LeBron’s arrival in the Western Conference: Life in the NBA’s Western Conference just became more difficult for the Jazz. They’re already waiting out the slow aging process of Golden State and Houston, and now they have to be patient until LeBron’s expiration date, whenever that is.
Without knowing the Jazz’s exact makeup in 2018-19, I’m saying their goal should be a top-four finish in the West and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. That would have been much easier with James remaining in the East.
This stuff sure will be fun to watch, though. I’m already picturing a No. 4 vs. No. 5 or No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup between the Jazz and James in the first round of the playoffs. That’s just delicious.
LeBron won’t instantly make the Lakers better than the Jazz. But he’ll get them close enough to make it interesting. The Lakers finished 35-47 last season, 13 games behind the Jazz. With some roster variables in play this month, the Jazz’s win total for 2018-19 projects to the low 50s. The Lakers certainly could rise to that range.
The atmosphere in Vivint always is vibrant and emotionally charged whenever James or the Lakers come to town, and now they’re packaged together. Having him visit with Miami and Cleveland was one thing; it will be quite another to see him in a Lakers uniform in this market, where there’s already an unhealthy percentage of L.A. fans. Even golfer Tony Finau, who attended high school just down the street from the arena, welcomed LeBron to his favorite team in a PGA Tour video.
It would have been worse for the Jazz if the Lakers also had landed Paul George, who’s staying in Oklahoma City. The Jazz have proven they’re better than the Thunder. But here come the Lakers, with LeBron and the potential to trade for Kawhi Leonard — although they presumably would have to weaken themselves to get him from San Antonio, and their other recent moves are puzzling. Lance Stephenson? JaVale McGee?
In any case, the imbalance between the West and the East is getting ridiculous. The NBA needs to create a 1-through-16 playoff format, as soon as possible. Ten players have made the All-NBA first team at various times in the past four seasons. At the moment, all 10 play in the West: James, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, DeAndre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Stephen Curry and James Harden.
The biggest winner in the NBA’s 2018 free agency? Gordon Hayward. The road to the NBA Finals just became much smoother for everybody in the East, notably Boston.
As for LeBron, this is not another case of him taking the easy path to a championship, as happened when he went to Miami in 2010. It also should be said that he fulfilled everything he promised in his return to Cleveland, delivering a title in 2016.
What’s certain is that James won’t win another Eastern Conference championship. That streak has ended at eight years. If he gets the Finals for a ninth straight season via the West, that will be quite an achievement. The Jazz know that, as well as anyone.