“That would be amazing,” James said last December when asked about what it might be like to play with Davis. “Like, duh. That would be incredible.” The question was hypothetical, the answer phrased to emphasize it as such. At the time, early in James’s first season in Los Angeles, the Lakers looked the part of a promising young squad, and James was every bit the MVP candidate fans expected. Then came a mid-season injury, a fall down the standings, rampant trade rumors, the stalled deadline deal for Davis, and, for the first time in his 16-year career, credible questions about James’s ability to lead a franchise. In April, the team president, Magic Johnson, abruptly stepped down, appearing on ESPN the next month to describe an organizational culture of infighting and backstabbing. The Lakers missed the playoffs—a first for James since his third season.
Read: What’s different about LeBron’s move to the Lakers
Davis, meanwhile, was far along on the most frustrating of superstar trajectories, producing excellence for a team treading water. The 2018 postseason had held promise, with Davis winning the first playoff series of his career, but the 2018–19 regular season signaled a reversion, as the team dropped below .500 and fell out of the playoff race. Davis’s play sparkled; he would end up with 25.9 points, 2.4 blocks, and a career-high 12 rebounds a game despite logging the fewest nightly minutes since his rookie year. But his trade request set off predictable controversy, especially since he had signed with James’s agent and longtime friend Rich Paul before the start of the season. In March, Davis appeared on James’s HBO show, The Shop, to defend his autonomy: “As a player, as the CEO of my own business, I got the power. I’m doing what I want to do and not what somebody is telling me.”
It is the nature of professional sports that winning validates what leads up to it. A championship run with the Lakers would recast last season, for James, as an instructive setback on the way to a fourth title; for Davis, it would justify his trade as a necessary move to a team worthy of his abilities. The possibilities are heady. Despite talk of his decline, James remains a singular force on the basketball court, with the strength and athleticism to move wherever (and through whomever) he chooses, the skill set to excel in every statistical category, and the savvy necessary to transpose his talents into team-wide strategy.
The 26-year-old Davis has everything a modern big man needs: a seven-and-a-half-foot wingspan, dexterous touch at the rim or on the perimeter, an ability to leave the floor faster than everyone around him. Talking to me about Davis last winter, the Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale, now an analyst with Turner Sports, cited the center’s expertise across modes of frontcourt play. “He can set the high screen and roll, he can get out in front of the break and post up, he can flash-cut to the post, bam, go get the ball, you can drive, he can filter in behind you, he can get a one-dribble dunk,” McHale said. “His best attribute is his ability to move and cut and play and just allow his teammates to find him.”