The LeBron James conundrum: The options ahead

The LeBron James conundrum: The options ahead

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The LeBron James conundrum: The options ahead

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Some players use the All-Star break to get together and compete with each other. Some players use the time to take a vacation and reset. LeBron James used the All-Star break as a business trip.

According to Brian Windhorst, James was offended by the Lakers’ inactivity during the trade deadline and general manager Rob Pelinka telling the media that the front office and James were aligned on that path. Dave McMenamin reported that there was no sign-off by James on keeping the roster intact.

James proceeded to praise Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti during All-Star weekend to the media while also flirting with the idea of a second return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also reiterated his goal of playing one season with his son before he retires.

Potential plans aside, the message James is sending to the Lakers is clear: this roster is unacceptable and big moves are needed to keep him invested. And as long as the Lakers are in the LeBron James business, they’ll need to keep him bought in.

We could be getting our fourth summer of LeBron, just not in the way we’re used to.

LeBron James’ future options

If James wishes to finish out his contract and possibly his career with the Lakers, he has several options to maximize his earnings. For starters, he will become extension-eligible this offseason for up to two years, $97.1 million, which is the most he can get under the Over-38 rule. It would pay him $50.4 million in his age 40 season.

He could also let his contract expire and re-sign with the Lakers in the 2023 offseason. A maximum contract for him then would be valued at $151.3 million over three years.

The Lakers could offer James his extension as soon as it’s available on August 4, but he may not be in a rush to sign it since he could at any point during the 2022-23 season. He could keep the pressure on the Lakers throughout the season by not signing it, while also keeping his options open for 2023 free agency in case the Lakers have another unsuccessful season.

Last week, we looked at several high-profile players whose futures could be speculated on in next season’s transaction cycle. We briefly touched on James given his history of changing teams when his team’s window appears to be closing and are out of moves, or refuse to make them. We saw this story play out most recently in James’ most recent stint in Cleveland.

If James were to hit the nuclear button and demand a trade in the 2022 offseason, he would in all likelihood get one. It’s possible he demands one if the Lakers cannot improve the team in his ever tighter window. It feels like L.A. will have to trade their last remaining assets for win-now players to put around James to keep him next year, even if they don’t believe the return significantly improves their title odds.

The argument against going all-in for next season

The Lakers are just about all out of moves except for one or maybe two significant ones. Their most attractive tradeable assets this offseason will be their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks. They will also have up to eight second-round picks available to trade this offseason.

The consensus move to be made is attaching one or both of those first-round picks with Russell Westbrook’s $47 million salary for upgrades or at least better-fitting players. They could also try attaching one pick with Westbrook for a player and the other pick with the salaries of Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn for another player.

The Lakers could potentially acquire strong talent with those picks, but there is some serious downside to such a move in the long run. If the Lakers trade them, for all we know they might be mortgaging their future for just one season.

Of course, James could extend with the Lakers beyond next season if things go well. But until then, these trades are only buying one more season of an invested James. Realistically, the Lakers were already looking at a few more seasons with LeBron anyways given his age, and plan to play with his son.

Knowing how short the Lakers’ window already is with James, there are arguments in favor of them not making additional win-now moves. Trading even just one first-round pick could bite the Lakers down the line, especially since they are already down two to the New Orleans Pelicans. Doing so would slow down what already may be a slow post-James rebuilding process.

There are even arguments in favor of hitting the reset button now and trading James and Anthony Davis for picks and young players. Doing so could allow them to replenish their draft picks and be in a better position to build the next great Lakers team sooner. However, going down any of these paths would go against how the Lakers have historically treated their star players.

Why the Lakers could appease LeBron James

Jeanie Buss, Los Angeles Lakers

Even though James is leveraging the Lakers to trade those picks this offseason, there’s a good chance they would trade them anyways without the public pressure. The LeBron James experience has been great for the Lakers and they probably would like to continue that partnership.

Trading picks so far out to improve a short title window would be not only br a huge investment toward James but also their future toward acquiring star players. Their history of acquiring star players and having many of them finish their careers in Los Angeles is well known. But their recent history towards the end of Kobe Bryant’s career could be an indicator of how the Lakers will proceed with James.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Lakers had maximum cap space and pursued the best players available. After trading for Dwight Howard and subsequently losing him in free agency, they went after Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge early on before reorganizing the front office in 2017.

Afterward, they focused on 2018 where they prioritized signing James along with Paul George. When he re-signed in Oklahoma City, they focused on 2019 to pursue a trade for Anthony Davis and a potential signing of Kawhi Leonard.

Not only did Dr. Jerry Buss‘ philosophy on pursuing star players remains with the Lakers, but so did their treatment of them. In 2013, they gave Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension, which was viewed by many as somewhat of a gift for his contributions to the franchise.

They could’ve had more cap space and flexibility in 2014 and 2015 had they not extended him, which could’ve helped expedite their rebuild. But they chose to let Bryant finish his career on his terms with them. The message the Lakers sent was clear: we take care of our stars, and perhaps these actions appealed to James.

The Lakers have historically pursued star players and probably don’t intend on changing that. The last thing they want is a potential war and divorce with James in the minds of potentially interested star players. Of course, it’s possible for an amicable parting of ways should James choose to play elsewhere, but that could also risk Davis’ investment with the Lakers.

If James wants to continue playing for the Lakers with the condition of them maximizing the roster around him next season, they ultimately may do what they think is best for the franchise. And what may be considered best for the franchise is serving their superstars since it could be what convinces the next one to come.

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