Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday, Aug. 3 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
On the very week that could determine the rest of his NBA career, LeBron James let the world know where he was.
The second. At the Lakers’ practice facility. Playing hoops with his two sons from him.
James is notorious for signaling, subtly or otherwise, his intentions and feelings about his career. This offseason has seen him on social media a lot (tweeting himself into controversy at times, even) but he’s also been in gyms across the country, both working out with other players and well-known trainers, but also traipsing around following Bronny and Bryce on the AAU circuit. So seeing him with his family in the Lakers’ facility felt significant. We’ll learn just how committed he and the Lakers are to each other when James becomes eligible Thursday to sign a two-year, $97 million contract extension that would him in purple-and-gold through his age-40 season.
The last few years have made it clear that family means the world to James. But he’s also impatient about fielding another contender, which the Lakers fell far short of last season. What are the factors that will determine how this shakes out? A quick primer:
James is entering the last year of the two-year extension he signed in 2020, while the franchise was still buzzing off its 17th championship in which he won Finals MVP. He’ll make $44.5 million next season, the third-highest compensation behind only Golden State’s Steph Curry ($48.1 million) and teammate Russell Westbrook ($47.1 million).
The NBA allows only two-year extensions for players turning 38 or older (the age James will reach in December). The Lakers can offer him a two-year extension worth $97.1 million or a one-year extension worth $46.7 million. Given that James helped deliver a title, it figures that the Lakers will go for two and try to get him to retire as a Laker. James said as recently as February that it is his intention of him: “I see myself being with the purple and gold as long as I can play.”
Two questions might leap to mind here, but are likely not strong factors: Firstly, is LeBron James worth it? James was a third-team All-NBA candidate last season who was in the running for MVP before getting injured, then still very nearly led the league in scoring. The biggest question is if he can stay healthy, after playing 101 of 154 possible regular-season games in the last two seasons. But between his still-robust stats (30.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 6.2 apg, 35.9% 3-point shooting on eight attempts per game) and his very strong brand, there’s a good argument to be made that he’s still a great value even on a max-level deal.
The other question is if James would ever consider taking less money in the interest of fielding a more competitive team, sort of the way James Harden did with Philadelphia this offseason. James has taken discounts before in Miami, when he had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as teammates. But all indications are that he is seeking the most money he can get – and even if he were to consider a discount at any point, he would likely have to be assured that money would go toward bringing in a top-flight teammate who could help him win. While a Kyrie Irving trade has been heavily rumored, and indeed the Lakers could try to chase the guard in free agency next year, the franchise isn’t really close to nailing that down as a sure thing yet.
THE COMPETITIVE WINDOW
James’ seemingly frosty relationship with Russell Westbrook at the moment is pretty indicative of what’s going on with the franchise. While they’ve propped up Westbrook as a returning starter, the NBA world knows he’s on the trade block … and there haven’t been many takers without significant draft compensation. Unless Westbrook is willing to accept a very different role next season as a defender and off-ball player, he remains the biggest single roadblock to the Lakers being an actually competitive team (in part because of the opportunity cost of his salary).
James wants to win. He said as much in April: “I want to help this franchise become a champion once again.” A source of tension since last February’s trade deadline is the Lakers’ concern about protecting its long-term draft assets (tradeable first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 being the prime ones) and James’ desire to see a better team around him now. While he’s walked back some of the comments he made that were seen as shots against the front office, James also knows his window to win as a franchise player will never be more open than it is right now – and each passing season sees it close tighter and tighter. If he had his druthers, the Lakers would have made a big shakeup at the deadline last season; they didn’t, and the team floundered down the finish.
Again searching into the past, James has used short-term contracts as leverage to get the outcomes he wants. In Cleveland, a series of “one-and-one” extensions applied pressure to the front office to execute big, win-now trades, and as a result, the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals every year during his second stint there.
But a few differences stand out. Notably, James isn’t quite the same player he was then. He ca n’t lift a team on his back from him the way he did in 2018 all the way to the Finals, and the Western Conference is far too competitive for one individual to carry teams that far anyway. The Lakers also have a history of aligning with James and his agent, Rich Paul, on a lot of personnel decisions: Again this season, the Lakers have signed a host of Klutch Sports clients including Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson. James said himself that he believes opposing teams are “jealous” of how close the Lakers are with Paul. The only sticking point seems to be the organization’s willingness to sell out more of its future than it already has, and with James and fellow star Anthony Davis struggling with their health the past two seasons, there is reason to hedge bets. Team governor Jeanie Buss has gone so far as to say publicly she doesn’t want to compromise the future of the team in any potential deals – which realistically takes the biggest deals off the table.
If the Lakers don’t make a move to field a more competitive roster this season, the focus shifts to the summer of 2023. Between Westbrook’s contract coming off the books and the host of one-year deals they signed this offseason, they can free up more than $20 million in cap space – enough to attract a good free agent, but not a max player. Again, it seems unlikely that James will be willing to take a discount, but bidding his time on his extension theoretically leaves that window open if a difference-making player becomes available next July. It’s more likely that James going unextended for the entire season will be a source of outside speculation and tension than a route to a team-friendly contract.
It’s worth adding here: People who have observed James’ offseason behavior for a long time speculate that there are differences to his approach. His appearance by him in the Drew League was a long-awaited event in the SoCal hoops scene. He’s been in gyms with high-profile trainers like Chris Brickley. While James is famous for his regimen, the signaling is one of a business-like approach, with more gym work and scrimmaging earlier in the offseason. Whether that is messaging for the Lakers, his teammates or fans (or some mix) is something only James knows.
THE FAMILY ELEMENT
And back to that bucolic scene Tuesday at the Lakers’ practice facility: dad and sons, dunking in succession. It summons to mind the possibility that James could actually play with Bronny, who is entering his senior year at Chatsworth’s Sierra Canyon High.
The James family does not seem in any mood to rush out of Southern California: With young children, it’s hard to see James wanting to uproot his whole family for a season at a time. While James has made do with having his empire work out of Cleveland and Miami before, his biggest enterprises are out West. He’s said publicly he wants to retire Laker.
The Athletic reported earlier this week that Bronny’s future is a big concern to James, which echoes what he said in February, that “it’s not about money at that point” in trying to play with his eldest son. It would be a near-unthinkable feat for anyone but James, who seems set on playing into his 40s. Bronny’s potential for him as an NBA player is still in question, but there will be no shortage of interest from colleges (although that interest is reportedly filtered through Paul and Klutch) and, eventually, franchises that might be willing to take a flier on King James ‘heir.
James reiterated in February that he wants them to suit up together: “I also have a goal that if it’s possible – I don’t even know if it’s possible – that if I can play with my son, I would love to do that. Is that, like, something that any man shouldn’t want that in life? That’s like the coolest thing that could possibly happen. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with this franchise.”
If the Lakers extend James through 2025, they’ll be under pressure to find a spot for Bronny in the 2024 offseason when he’ll be draft eligible. A 6-foot-3 guard, Bronny has a lot of work to do to get to the pro level. But the Lakers also haven’t been shy about bringing in the sons of former basketball greats, which might be some signaling in and of itself.
Was Tuesday, with Junior and Senior playing ball together in El Segundo, a sneak peek at the 2024 roster? If James extends on Thursday or soon after, the Lakers could be marching toward that moment.
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.