LOS ANGELES • LeBron James embarks on the latest and possibly final chapter of his glittering career with the basketball world watching and wondering if arguably the greatest player of his generation can deliver a Hollywood ending.
Ever since James confirmed his four-year US$154 million (S$212 million) blockbuster move to the Los Angeles Lakers in July, sceptics have asked whether the 33-year-old's move to California was motivated by his love for the sport or his entertainment industry portfolio.
As the theory went, if James was truly determined to add more National Basketball Association (NBA) championship rings to his collection of three titles, a more logical destination would have been the Houston Rockets or Philadelphia 76ers, where his arrival might have elevated either franchise to potential super-team status.
Instead, he opted for a Lakers team mired in mediocrity, having failed to make the play-offs since 2013 and coming off five straight losing seasons, their worst period in club history.
"Strictly a business decision," was the withering verdict of TNT commentator Charles Barkley. "He's on the downside. He wants to be a big Hollywood mogul. He's going to be driving by the beach every day."
James and those familiar with his reasons for choosing the Lakers have dismissed the critics out of hand, citing their proud history with 16 NBA championship titles and their star names over the years from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic Johnson and, more recently, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
"My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers," said James. "I'm a basketball player. I play ball, that's what I do. That's what I live by and, when I do it the way I do it, everything takes care of itself."
And, as James points out, his forays into entertainment, which have included movie roles and documentaries, were already well known before his arrival in Tinseltown.
And there is a slew of evidence to refute the notion that the four-time Most Valuable Player, who turns 34 in December, is a fading force.
James frequently demonstrated last season that he remains capable of putting a team on his back, at times dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers single-handedly over the line as they reached the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year.
He is also the kind of player who makes everyone around him better, having led his teams in assists during each of his 15 NBA seasons.
Whether the component parts of the Lakers roster can give him enough support to provide a credible challenge this season remains to be seen but, certainly, the bookmakers are not ruling it out, with only odds-on favourites and champions Golden State Warriors ahead of them.
O'Neal also feels that, despite his big-money move, there could be less pressure on James to continue to chase championship titles, with his legacy already cemented.
IT'S ALL BUSINESS
Strictly a business decision. He's on the downside. He wants to be a big Hollywood mogul. He's going to be driving by the beach every day.
CHARLES BARKLEY, NBA legend and TNT commentator, who feels that LeBron James just wants to fulfil his Hollywood ambitions.
"LeBron's book is set," he told ESPN. "He's passed up legends, made his mark and has three rings."
Statistically, the odds favour James. In a 15-year career, his teams have won 50 or more games in 11 seasons and his arrival should be good enough to take the Lakers, who finished with 35 wins last year, into the post-season.
Young talents such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma will also benefit from his direction.
James, however, has been careful to rein in expectations about what the Lakers can achieve this year, warning that any challenge to the Warriors' domination of the league remains a speck on the horizon.
FAMILY, LAKERS AND BASKETBALL
My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers. I play ball, that's what I do. That's what I live by and, when I do it the way I do it, everything takes care of itself.
LEBRON JAMES, winner of three NBA titles, on his reasons for joining the LA Lakers.
"We've got a long way to go to get to Golden State," James said. "We're a new ball club trying to get better. We have to take our bumps and our bruises, there's going to be good times and bad times but, if we continue to sacrifice for each other, everything will fall into place."
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has concurred, saying that success this season will be measured by whether the team can end their play-off drought and nothing more.
"That was the idea. You can't go from the bottom to the top overnight, you have to keep taking those steps," Buss told Reuters.
She also revealed that Johnson, Lakers' vice-president of basketball operations, had been the pull factor behind James' move. "LeBron coming is 100 per cent about Magic because he has given us an identity of who the Lakers are, what we stand for and what we're working towards," Buss added.
"I'm really, really hopeful for the play-offs and, once you get James (there), anything can happen."
The early evidence of a James-inspired Lakers renewal has been encouraging, with two consecutive pre-season victories over the Warriors last week.
Lance Stephenson, another off-season recruit, is in no doubt about James' impact on the franchise.
"The focus and communications skills with everyone starts with LeBron," the former Indiana Pacers player said. "It's contagious and helps the whole team."
The Lakers kick off the new season on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday before they take on the Houston Rockets in their home opener at the Staples Centre on Oct 20.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS