LeBron James Joining Lakers on 4-Year $154 Million Deal

After helping the city of Cleveland banish a championship curse that spanned 52 years, LeBron James has found his next challenge: Rescuing the Los Angeles Lakers from the most unsuccessful period in the storied franchise’s history.

In what has become an every-four-years ritual for the three-time N.B.A. champion, James has chosen to switch teams in free agency for the third time in his career. He announced Sunday night that he was leaving his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time and joining the fallen giants in Los Angeles.

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The Lakers have long been considered the league’s most glamorous team, but they have missed the playoffs each of the last five seasons — the longest such drought they have endured. It prompted the Lakers’ controlling owner, Jeanie Buss, to hire one of the team’s all-time greats, Magic Johnson, as president of basketball operations in February 2017 with the specific goal of luring the sport’s biggest name to Hollywood at the top of their wish list.

James’s destination, then, was not entirely surprising, but the timing and manner in which he made his next stop known were certainly unexpected. Through a short news release issued by his agents at Klutch Sports on the first night of N.B.A. free agency, James announced at 8:05 p.m. that he would sign a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.

It was a stark contrast to his first departure from Cleveland. In a widely panned television program on July 8, 2010 — known as “The Decision” — James revealed his controversial move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, which prompted scores of Cavaliers fans to turn on the native of nearby Akron, Ohio. In 2014, after winning two championships in Miami, James waited until the 11th day of free agency to disclose his plans to leave the Heat and return to the team that drafted him in a Sports Illustrated essay titled “I’m Coming Home.” James has no immediate plans to hold a news conference to discuss this move; his next scheduled public appearance is July 30 in Akron.

A four-time N.B.A. most valuable player, James has led Eastern Conference teams to eight consecutive N.B.A. finals, with Cleveland’s title in 2016 bringing the city its first major sports crown since football’s Cleveland Browns in 1964 before the advent of the Super Bowl. Moving to the Lakers will send James, 33, to the Western Conference for the first time as he enters his 16th season.

He took to Instagram to say goodbye to Cavaliers fans, posting a picture of Cleveland’s 2016 championship parade with the caption: “Thank you Northeast Ohio for an incredible 4 seasons. This will always be home.”

Los Angeles, though, has also become a summer home to James; his wife, Savannah; and their three children. James made it clear after the Cavaliers suffered a four-game sweep against the Golden State Warriors in the N.B.A. finals last month that family considerations would factor into his free-agency thinking more than ever before, which appears to have greatly enhanced the Lakers’ chances of luring him away from his Cleveland comfort zone.

The Lakers, even with James, will not be considered a top contender at the Warriors’ level. They sport a roster filled mostly with younger cornerstones — including Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and the polarizing guard Lonzo Ball — and a young coach in Luke Walton who was selected in the same N.B.A. draft as James in 2003 and played 10 professional seasons.

But by agreeing to a four-year contract, James essentially acknowledged that the Lakers would need time to build a title-worthy team around him. After Johnson visited James at one of his Los Angeles residences Saturday night for three hours once the league’s free agency period opened, James was willing to afford the franchise that time.

The Lakers’ free-agency victory came after they had failed in their attempts to lure the All-Star Paul George away from the Oklahoma City Thunder. They have also been stymied in their efforts thus far to persuade the San Antonio Spurs to trade them the All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. None of that, however, prevented James from moving quickly. James’s new contract contains a player option for the 2021-22 season that ensures that he will be a Laker for at least three seasons before he can return to free agency.

Only one team had the ability to pay James a five-year maximum contract worth $207 million: the Cavaliers. His departure will now force the Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, with whom James has maintained a chilly relationship, to decide whether to try to reload around his last remaining All-Star, Kevin Love, or to explore trading Love to launch a rebuilding program in earnest.

Despite his departure, James’s recent tenure in Cleveland remains a comeback story for the ages — in a literal sense. After spending the first seven seasons of his professional career with the Cavaliers, James had left for Miami as a free agent in 2010 to team up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a productive partnership for James — the Heat had a dominant four-year run — but he left the Cavaliers in ruins. Without him, they were one of the worst teams in the N.B.A.

But in a ballyhooed move, he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014, pledging to deliver a championship. He made good on his promise. James led the Cavaliers to four straight finals appearances — business as usual for him. He has become a postseason staple — and a boon for the league, which has seldom, if ever, produced a player who so effortlessly combines strength and finesse, a 6-foot-8 forward who has the body of a bulldozer and the mind of a professor.

James appeared to have a solid partnership in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving, the All-Star point guard who was drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011. But last summer, Irving shocked the league — and James — by requesting a trade, in part, it appeared, so that he could escape James’s shadow. The Cavaliers honored Irving’s request by sending him to the Boston Celtics, who instantly became a contender in the East, in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and others.

Without Irving, the Cavaliers struggled for long stretches last season, even as James assembled one of the finest seasons of his career. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game, shooting 54.2 percent from the field. He also played in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career.

But the Cavaliers experimented with different lineups, overhauling their roster more than once, and the point guard position was a grease fire at times. Thomas was hindered by a bad hip and was eventually traded to the Lakers. The Cavaliers traded for George Hill ahead of the playoffs, but he, too, was slowed by injuries. The result was a hodgepodge season that James said was one of the most challenging of his career.

That James still managed to drag the Cavaliers into the finals — again — was nothing short of heroic, even if it ended in a sweep by the Warriors in a series that felt anticlimactic.

His departure this time, too, was less dramatic, cushioned by the memory of the 2016 title. The city of Akron, via its Twitter feed, thanked James “from the bottom of our hearts” on Sunday for the financial and civic contributions he had made in that community since returning to the Cavaliers four years ago. After midnight, Gilbert issued a statement paying tribute to James, taking a much different tone than he did in the infamous letter that blasted a 25-year-old James for leaving in 2010.

“LeBron, you came home and delivered the ultimate goal,” Gilbert wrote on Sunday, thanking him for “a championship that united generations of Clevelanders, both living and past.”

Gilbert added: “Nothing but appreciation and gratitude for everything you put into every moment you spent in a Cavaliers uniform. We look forward to the retirement of the famous #23 Cavs jersey one day down the line.”

The Philadelphia 76ers were also granted an opportunity Sunday morning to make a pitch to James’s agent Rich Paul, but it appears the short list of potential destinations came down to the two cities where James has ties: Cleveland and Los Angeles. In the end, he decided to join that string of all-time greats — including Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal — and make his way to the Lakers midcareer. The job in James’ case, though, calls on him to restore some luster to the franchise.

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