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The Lakers aren’t good enough. LeBron is old. Should they split up?

In Sports
May 01, 2024

The Los Angeles Lakers are not good enough, and LeBron James will turn 40 years old in December. Remind yourself of both whenever considering whether their futures will be entwined beyond June.

Or whenever considering whether their futures should be entwined. Those are two different things.

The Lakers, it seems, have made up their minds. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Jovan Buha and Sam Amick, who all but tossed dirt on Darvin Ham’s tenure as head coach, “The Lakers want [James] back — badly.” Lakers owner Jeanie Buss reportedly “believes James’ return is of paramount importance to their plan” and is willing to pay up to “the maximum three-year, $164 million extension they can offer.”

James coyly remained non-committal about his future with the Lakers, telling reporters after Monday’s 108-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets sealed a first-round exit, “I’m not gonna answer that. Appreciate it.”

James owns a $51.42 million option to play for the Lakers next season. Everything is on the table. He can opt into that contract between now and June 29. He can opt out and re-sign in L.A. for either the short- or long term, starting at a slightly lower salary ($40.99 million). He can sign anywhere else for anything from a maximum starting salary ($49.35 million) to the veteran minimum ($3.31 million). He can retire.

We know James wants to play with (or against) his eldest son, Bronny, who left open his own options, declaring for the NBA Draft on the same day he entered the NCAA’s transfer portal — eight months after suffering cardiac arrest. The Lakers own the 55th pick in the draft, a sweet spot for Bronny. Most every other team has the option to draft him ahead of the Lakers and hope James follows for whatever the cost.

We also know James prefers to stay in L.A., or at least he said so in February: “I am a Laker, and I’ve been very happy being a Laker the last six years, and hopefully it stays that way. I don’t have the answer to how long it will be or what uniform I’ll be wearing. Hopefully, it is with the Lakers. It’s a great organization with so many greats. We’ll see. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it’s coming. It’s coming, for sure.”

DENVER, COLORADO - APRIL 29: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers gathers himself after taking a hard hit while playing the Denver Nuggets in the third quarter during game five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Ball Arena on April 29, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Will LeBron look to play elsewhere next season? (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Nobody thinks Year 21 is the end for James. In all likelihood, he returns to the Lakers.

They are expected to part ways with head coach Darvin Ham and hire his replacement from a list of candidates that includes Mike Budenholzer, league sources told Yahoo Sports. General manager Rob Pelinka is also expected to consolidate the contracts of Jarred Vanderbilt, Gabe Vincent, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura and/or D’Angelo Russell (whose own decision on a player option for next season remains unclear), along with as many as three first-round draft picks, in the pursuit of a third star, sources said.

Trae Young is the biggest brand-name trade candidate, though league circles are split on how well a trio of Young, James and Anthony Davis would fare. More stars are exiting the first round onto a crossroads. Phoenix and New Orleans are out. Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia are not far behind. Cleveland and either Dallas or the Clippers might not be, either. Would any trade request from those teams shock you?

Maybe one is enough to convince James to stay, and maybe that is enough for L.A. No team is more enamored with stars than the Lakers, sometimes to a fault. They were three years removed from a title in 2013, fresh off a first-round exit, when they re-signed a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant to a two-year max extension. He had aged out of his ability to carry a contender but still sold tickets for the Buss family.

James’ situation is different for many reasons. Respectively, Bryant and the Lakers were months removed from tearing an Achilles and losing All-NBA center Dwight Howard to free agency. Although James suffers from “a chronically sore left ankle,” according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Davis does not appear to be going anywhere — unless a player of Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s or Joel Embiid‘s caliber becomes available.

James’ situation is also similar in some respects. His Lakers cannot compete with the NBA’s reigning champions, and he can only watch as another generation of rising superstars seizes control of his league.

Building around a high-priced and aged superstar is nearly impossible, especially when his co-star commands another max contract and cannot consistently stay healthy. The front office can either collect role players around them or chase a third star. Both options have repeatedly failed in the past four years.

You can see why James would keep his options open, even if declining his player option for next season will cost him a fraction of his salary. What if Antetokounmpo declares, “I want a trade — to the Lakers”? James has the luxury of seeing that through this summer, just in case the longest of shots finds a net.

And if it doesn’t? Well, the Lakers will continue to do what they have done since James arrived in 2018. They will trade every available asset to appease him, mortgaging the next decade for the possibility they can capture the magic they found in the Orlando bubble — only after James passes his 40th birthday.

Meanwhile, James is far more flexible. Whether he enters free agency this year or maintains the option to do so next summer, he can chase another ring in any number of ways. The 76ers could come calling with a max contract. Kyrie Irving could convince him to take a mid-level exception from the Mavericks. A reunion with the Cavaliers or Heat could only cost a veteran minimum. Any team could draft Bronny and capture his attention. A number of them can also offer him a better shot at a fifth title than the Lakers.

What if nothing the Lakers do this summer is good enough? What if any meaningfully available star does not want to hitch his wagon to a 40-year-old James? What if, at his age, James cannot play 71 games again, cannot continue to maintain his efficiency in the face of Father Time or cannot command a contender?

The Lakers can do everything James asks, trading every available asset for a retooled roster, and they could still field another mediocre roster — with or without him. Davis, who shares Rich Paul as an agent with James, could beg out of L.A., too. James holds all the cards, unless … the Lakers play him first.

One day, James will retire. The Lakers will endure, and another superstar will come to L.A. Only they can decide whether to spend the meantime together, for they are not good enough, and he will soon be 40.

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