Another cloud is coming for Los Angeles. The ones already hanging over the Lakers are about to get darker, unless LeBron James signs the two-year, $97 million contract extension for which he is eligible on Aug. 4.
Otherwise, the NBA's most important player of this century can become a free agent at the age of 38 next summer, when the Lakers may be working on a third straight season without a series victory in the playoffs. On three previous occasions in his career — in 2009-10, 2013-14 and 2017-18 — James played a season for a team with sub-championship future expectations, and it was never kind to his incumbent organization.
That should have the Lakers bracing for a frosty winter in Los Angeles.
LeBron James' long history with free agency
Each time, James said all the right things entering his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Cavs again. He addressed every impending free agency to start the season, insisting he would consider his options only when the time came and do his best not to let it become a distraction in the meantime. He then referred back to those comments whenever he was subsequently asked about his future decision.
"I've been a Cav for seven years, and I've never given any indication I was leaving," he said in November 2009, days before declaring, "This free-agent talk is getting old, and I'm going to stop. Tonight will be the last time I answer any more free-agent questions until the offseason. I owe it to myself and my teammates."
"I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami," he said in September 2013, weeks before clarifying, "I owe it to this organization and I owe it to my teammates to really not get involved and not talk about it."
"That hasn't changed," he said in September 2017, when he was asked if previous pledges to finish his career in Cleveland were still his intention, months before asserting, "It’s a discredit to my teammates and the coaching staff here. My only focus now is trying to figure out how we can become a championship-caliber team in these next few months. It’s been so many stories about me in the last few months, in the last few days, about where I’m going and where I’m at and what place I’m in. I’m here. I’m right here."
So, it was fair to still raise an eyebrow when James said of his future in Los Angeles this past February, "This is a franchise I see myself being with. I’m here. I’m here. I see myself being with the purple and gold as long as I can play." Just as it was fair to raise the other eyebrow when he addressed his impending extension eligibility by telling reporters at his exit interview in April, "When we get to that point, we’ll see."
James cited the collective bargaining agreement as reason for not tipping his hand, and a quiet summer from his camp all but confirms he will maintain that appearance of ambiguity, at least until the negotiating window opens next week. But let's be real: He knows whether or not he intends to sign an extension that would pay him roughly $50 million at the age of 40, and flexibility is more important than financial security when the NBA's first active billionaire player is trying to script the end to his carefully crafted career.
Every hour, every day James does not sign the extension will lead to another question about his future, and it will be the first query posed to him on media day, regardless of whether he broaches the subject on "The Shop" or elsewhere this summer. The questions won't stop, no matter how diplomatically he answers them.
To be fair, James has done well to ignore past distractions. He was the league's MVP in 2010 and the runner-up in 2014 and 2018. He carried his teams as far as he could in the playoffs, and then they folded once they ran up against a superior opponent, and their shortcomings excused his departure.
If lopsided losses in the second round to the 2010 Boston Celtics and in the Finals to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2018 Golden State Warriors were enough to convince James he no longer had the talent around him to win, what might he think if the Lakers are scrapping for a play-in tournament spot again?
'The door's not closed' on Cleveland
James has been through this news cycle enough to know the speculation he would stir when he praised another general manager and told The Athletic's Jason Lloyd at the All-Star break, "The door's not closed" on a return to Cleveland, and, "My last year will be played with my son. Wherever Bronny is at, that’s where I’ll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It’s not about the money at that point."
The Cavaliers won 11 more games than the Lakers last season, despite a rash of injuries, and they can create significant salary-cap space next summer. It is at least a possibility that James could return home again. He has repeatedly said that championships are all that matters at this point in his career, save for that farewell season with his son, and at least 20 teams were closer to vying for a title than the Lakers were last season.
Bronny James is entering his senior year of high school at Sierra Canyon, where he is a four-star recruit. He cannot currently declare for the NBA draft until 2024, and even then it is unclear if he is a surefire prospect. (There is a remote possibility he could become eligible for the 2023 draft, but that would require the NBA or the players' association to opt out of the current CBA in December and renegotiate the age of eligibility.)
The Lakers have only a second-round draft pick from either the Memphis Grizzlies or Washington Wizards in 2024, and maintaining flexibility may be LeBron's way of influencing who they select with that pick. Other teams may also be willing to draft Bronny, just to recruit his father, but remember: LeBron said, "My last year will be played with my son," which doesn't necessarily mean his last year will be his son's rookie year.
He could sign an extension with the Lakers until 2025 and still play a season with his son in Los Angeles or elsewhere. Rejecting an offer would have more to do with the state of the Lakers than Bronny's career path.
The state of the Lakers
Regardless, LeBron James will be 40 years old before his son can even think about an NBA career. James has been on the injury list more times in his four-year Lakers tenure than he had the entirety of his previous 15 seasons. His only healthy season in L.A. included a four-month layoff for a pandemic. His window to make meaningful playoff contributions is right now, and the Lakers are nowhere close to title contention.
Russell Westbrook wants out of L.A., and James reportedly wants him out, too, but the Lakers will not find takers without including draft picks. The Lakers have only their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks to trade, since the New Orleans Pelicans hold their rights from 2023-25, and they are rightfully hesitant to deal them, considering James will be 42 by then, and they have no idea what their roster will look like in his absence.
James is openly pressuring the Lakers to trade every available asset to improve the team, but it is unclear if Westbrook's expiring $47 million contract and draft picks are enough to land Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets, or Buddy Hield and Myles Turner from the Indiana Pacers, since both teams rejected initial overtures.
We also don't know if either trade would elevate the Lakers into serious contention. They are currently slated to start at least two replacement-level players. That lack of depth is a real issue for a team reliant on the health of James and Anthony Davis, even if the Lakers find a helpful player or two in a Westbrook deal.
So, James and the Lakers are left awkwardly dancing around their commitment to each other. The Lakers want James to commit before they go all in on trading every last asset, and James wants the Lakers to trade every last asset before he goes all in on them. It is not dissimilar to the Cavaliers' situation in the summer of 2017, when Irving wanted out, and they traded him for a package centered on an eventual top-10 pick rather than ones for Paul George, because James and George could have left in 2018.
A non-committal from James may not be a distraction in the locker room, but it would certainly impact the way the Lakers approach their roster-building strategy, and that might lower their ceiling this year and next.
Every season is invaluable to James at this stage, and this coming year is already starting to feel like a lost one, save for his pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record. The Lakers can create roughly $20 million in cap space next summer, assuming they retain James, and that may not be enough to alter their title chances in any significant way. The potential is there for a sputtering end to a legendary career.
That might also give the Lakers reason to reconsider their partnership with James. It is not the Lakers' way, given the fact they gave Kobe Bryant a two-year extension at the league's highest salary in the immediate aftermath of his Achilles' rupture at age 35, but trading James for assets and considerable cap space in 2023 is a reasonable pathway to quickly rebuild around Davis and avoid futility for the rest of the decade.
Did we mention Davis can enter free agency in 2024? He joins James on the Klutch Sports client list, and separating their futures in Los Angeles is easier said than done for Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka.
Trading James is at least as reasonable as paying him $50 million at age 40 to play for a team no longer in contention, which raises the issue of whether or not the Lakers should even offer him a max extension. A commitment from James would at least give the front office a direction through 2025, but to what end? The safest bet for all parties may be taking this one year at a time, leaving the rest of the roster in annual limbo.
Sound logic will not prevent all of these questions and more. Such is the difficulty of leaving a legend's exit strategy open-ended. There is a storm coming for Los Angeles on Aug. 4, whether the Lakers like it or not.
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