Greg Cote

LeBron James poised to have last laugh, go out a champ if Lakers close on Kawhi Leonard | Opinion

‘I’m still chasing another championship,’ says Pat Riley

Pat Riley speaks about his future with the Miami Heat during an interview with Dan Le Batard on ESPN's SportsCenter.
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Pat Riley speaks about his future with the Miami Heat during an interview with Dan Le Batard on ESPN's SportsCenter.

With the ball on his palm, in basketball IQ, in business dealings, in shaping his own brand, we should agree LeBron James is brilliant in in a lot of ways.

We have learned something new about him this summer, though. We have learned how astute James is at recognizing how the man in the mirror has changed. He is 34 now, relegated to third-team All-NBA last season. He is no longer the consensus best player in the league — not when age is factored. More significantly, he now seems content with not even being the best player on his team.

This summer has been about James admitting he needs help. It has been about him orchestrating the end of his career, and making it easier for him to age gracefully, not desperately.

It has been about him trying to make sure that epic career goes out on top — brilliant again, if he can pull it off.

LeBron haters were reveling last season as the Lakers went 37-45 and missed the playoffs in his first season in L.A. What had he gotten himself into? Well, with Anthony Davis now beside him and Kawhi Leonard maybe joining him, too, LeBron is poised to have the ultimate last laugh.

Step 1 was his Los Angeles Lakers trading away an array of players and future draft picks to pry the disgruntled superstar Davis, who calls himself, “the best in the world,” from New Orleans. Done.

James agreed to give his No. 23 jersey number to Davis, who’d wore it as a Pelican. A ceremonial gesture of sorts. Torch being passed from age to youth. (Dwayne Wade had done the same thing for LeBron in Miami, not with a jersey number, but with telling James before Year 2 of the Big 3 that this was LeBron’s team now).

Step 2 for the Lakers is trying to now lure the superstar free agent Leonard — the last available grand prize still unclaimed — to join LeBron and A.D. to form the next super team — putting on the hardwood arguably the three best players on one team in league history.

Leonard’s decision will be seismic.

Join the Lakers and Team LeBron will be overwhelming championship favorites for the foreseeable future.

But if Leonard elects to join the crosstown L.A. Clippers or stay with reigning champion Toronto, there suddenly might be as many as eight franchises all thinking they have a shot at the crown — uncommon parity for the typically top-heavy NBA.

Leonard is getting the media heat you’d expect to not take the perceived easy way out by joining the Lakers. Stephen A. Smith, Jason Whitlock and other pundits have said that would be the “weak move” — as if Kawhi isn’t just about the last athlete on earth to not give a [bleep] what some gasbag is shouting into a mic.

LeBron took the same flak coming to Miami in 2010.

Kevin Durant faced that shrapnel leaving Oklahoma City to join an existing super team in Golden State in 2016.

I try very hard not to presume to instruct grown men on what to do with their lives, their relatively short careers.

If Leonard signs with the Lakers, folks in Toronto have a right to be mad and Clippers fans have a right to feel let down. The rest of us have no horse in this race and need to just be a little bit quiet.

I’ve heard it posited that a LeBron/Unibrow/Kawhi super team would be bad for the league.

I’m not even sure that’s true.

The Brady/Belichick dynasty in New England has hurt the NFL how, exactly?

The NBA survived just fine when the LeBron/Big 3 Miami Heat made four straight Finals, or when the Warriors had their super team run.

If the Lakers are next, so what? It’s a major franchise restored. It’s a team that gets to be the national villain, and it isn’t all bad for a league to have one of those.

The NBA is big enough and popular enough and leading all sports in relating to urban youth and the social media age that it can withstand anything, and certainly another power shift. For every hoops fan bemoaning a lack of parity there would be another excited to see how James, Davis and Leonard mesh — whether they soar of stumble.

The NBA owns sport summers because of the action we’ve already seen.

Durant and Kyrie Irving joining forces as Brooklyn Nets had league-changing potential (though Durant will miss next season with that Achilles injury).

The Knicks missing out on Zion Williamson and then watching Durant go to the other borough rocked New York.

Klay Thompson sticking with Steph Curry in Golden State was big. So was Kemba Walker to the Celtics, and Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavs.

Heck, even the Heat somehow maneuvering to land Jimmy Butler was an unexpected splash. That and those Bradley Beal whispers have Miami fans fist-bumping again.

Kawhi Leonard’s pending decision dwarfs them all.

Especially if that decision is the Lakers, and the NBA’s game of thrones is down to one team because suddenly King James’ court is full of royalty.