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Conspiracy Corner: Is ‘Space Jam 2’ a Way for LeBron James and the Lakers to Get Around Their Salary Cap Troubles?

Or maybe this is all just a coincidence

Ringer illustration

In the real world, LeBron James’s dream of building another superteam has hit a snag. Yes, the Lakers did swing a trade to pair James with Anthony Davis, giving him a running partner as he tries to win an NBA title with a third franchise. But on Wednesday, it was reported that Lakers brass apparently had failed to realize that the trade would not leave enough salary cap space for the team to sign a third star.

In the cartoon world, though, James’s superteam is coming along just fine. Since 2014, James has been attached to a sequel to the 1996 classic (?) Space Jam, which came out when I was 6 years old and happened to star my two favorite people on the planet when I was 6 years old, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. In the movie, Jordan was surrounded by a retinue of other NBA players. So, naturally, the cast that would join James in Space Jam 2 has long been a topic of speculation. On the same day that it was reported the Lakers were scrambling to shed cap space, the first-ever list of James’s Space Jam 2 castmates was also reported. The list includes Klay Thompson, Chris Paul, WNBA stars including Diana Taurasi, and the Ogwumike sisters. And oh yeah, James’s new real-life teammate, Anthony Davis. Funny how that worked out.

The film will help boost the acting reels of all hoopers involved. Davis was recently tapped to play himself or maybe an alien in a series of ads for Men In Black: International. Thompson recently appeared in a commercial for a hospital that, for some reason, was a parody of the Swedish black-and-white masterpiece The Seventh Seal. I completely do not understand how this commercial was a positive advertisement for a hospital—they’re supposed to cure us, why do we need to play ominous beach chess against the physical embodiment of failure?!?—so I’ll just assume Thompson was announcing his interest in entering the world of high-brow cinema. You know, like Space Jam.

When Michael Jordan battled the Monstars back in 1996, the casting of other players was relatively simple. The entire movie was the brainchild of Jordan’s agent, David Falk. Falk took an executive producer credit on the film, and sure enough, four of the five players who had their talent stolen by the Monstars (Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, and Patrick Ewing) were Falk clients as well. (Perhaps if Falk had had a better stable of clients, the Monstars would’ve stood a chance.)

Falk was offering up his basketball players to Warner Bros. so Warner Bros. could make a box office smash. In return, Jordan would get an unrivaled marketing platform. Hypothetically, it should have been hard for Jordan to become popular with the public, because accounts of his behavior tend to indicate that he’s been a massive asshole. But Jordan handled winning championships, and Falk gave Jordan a squeaky-clean public persona. Thanks to Space Jam, people don’t know Jordan as an asshole, but as a lovable guy who would do anything to save his cartoon buddies. The movie was a massive success for everybody: Space Jam grossed more than $200 million for Warner Bros., and while Jordan’s salary from the film has never been reported, his role helped establish him as a universally loved icon. Twenty years after his retirement, he’s still selling shoes and underwear.

With LeBron, the lines between who benefits from what are a bit blurrier. James, along with his agent, Rich Paul, and his primary business partner, Maverick Carter, has actively tried to position himself as a basketball player-slash-entertainment mogul. James and Carter founded a production company, SpringHill Entertainment, which, incidentally, signed a contract to develop projects with Warner Bros. in 2015. (Guess which cartoon characters are owned by Warner Bros!) In 2018, James moved in free agency from Cleveland to Los Angeles. Did James move to L.A. because of basketball reasons, or because it would make it easier for him to build an entertainment empire?

James played himself in the Judd Apatow movie Trainwreck, voiced a character in the animated kids’ movie Smallfoot (as the hit smash “Zendaya is Meechee” revealed, he played Gwangi), and was an executive producer on the Starz drama Survivor’s Remorse, the ABC competition show Million Dollar Mile, and the NBC game show The Wall. Even though all of these shows prominently advertised James’s EP status, it’s never been clear what role James plays in executive-producing these shows. Does he offer notes on scripts, help choose filming locations, or vet contestants? No. Have you ever watched any of these shows? Again, probably not.

All of this brings us to Space Jam 2, by far the largest project of James’s entertainment career. It’s his first feature film as an executive producer, and his first leading role as an actor. And as such, his part in the film’s production is much more incestuous than Jordan’s. While the original Space Jam was a one-off opportunity to make Jordan look good to the purchasing public, James seems to view his basketball successes and his future in entertainment as somewhat equally critical parts of his future. Jordan won championships and let other people put him in movies; James wants to win championships and make movies himself. And the two feel connected: If James wins a championship with the Lakers in 2020, Space Jam 2 will probably perform better in 2021, and if Space Jam 2 does well, James’s future in entertainment will be firmly rooted in a successful blockbuster, which James hasn’t had yet. (No offense to any Survivor’s Remorse heads out there.)

And it’s probably no coincidence that Davis, who signed with Paul last year and almost instantly began demanding a trade to join James with the Lakers, is in the movie. Paul’s clientele isn’t quite as wide-ranging as Falk’s, so Davis is the only other one of his clients connected to the movie, but the on-court connections don’t stop there. The movie also features Thompson, a free agent this summer who is expected to re-sign with the Warriors, but has also been rumored to consider signing with the Lakers. But the Lakers have screwed up the salary cap. They can’t have James and Davis and a Thompsonlike player, because Thompson’s market value is higher than the amount of money that the Lakers are allowed to pay.

What if that weren’t a problem, though? What if Space Jam 2 weren’t a movie about players from around the league getting abducted by cartoon aliens, but a movie about James’s Lakers teammates getting abducted by aliens? And what if that movie paid Thompson $5 million to appear? What if Thompson decided not to sign with the Lakers, and, all of a sudden, Space Jam’s producers (one of whom is James) decided that Jimmy Butler should get that $5 million role instead? What if Davis, who is under contract until 2021, agreed to take less money on his next deal but was promised a cut of the box office from Space Jam, which conveniently comes out in 2021? What if Chris Paul did the same in exchange for waiving his 2021-22 player option with the Rockets and signing a new contract in two years with the Lakers? (LOL, Chris Paul will never waive that player option, but we’re just throwing out wild ideas.)

The NBA hypothetically polices financial arrangements meant to circumvent the salary cap—for example, if a team were to give its jersey sponsorship away for free to a business owned by a player, or if a team gave a player’s brother a $1.5 million contract to work in the scouting department. There aren’t rules against every possible scenario, but as NBA CBA expert Larry Coon explains in his famous FAQ, the CBA “isn’t a list of things teams can’t do, but a list of things they can do,” and the league reserves the right to disallow anything not specifically permitted in the CBA.

However, the league isn’t great at monitoring these situations—for example, when the Knicks signed J.R. Smith to a below market-rate deal and also signed his extremely trash brother to a contract, the league determined it was possible that the team really considered Smith’s brother an NBA prospect. And at any rate, a player receiving money for Space Jam 2 wouldn’t be an illegal affiliation between the Lakers and their players. Warner Bros. has no connection with the Lakers—just with Springhill, which is owned by a Lakers player. Would a player’s business venture’s creating income for his teammates circumvent the CBA?

James’s outsize role in everything makes it hard to determine what’s going on. He has been significantly more impactful in reforming the Lakers as a title contender than anybody within the Lakers’ organization—James signed with the team, and his agent signed an all-NBA talent and got him to demand a trade to the Lakers; meanwhile, the Lakers front office seemingly did nothing but help to botch said trade. LeBron is the one who wants these players on his team, and maybe he can create a financial windfall capable of pulling it off. And with James taking on simultaneous roles in basketball and entertainment, he can legitimately argue that the casting of his current and desired future teammates is a strategic choice to boost the success of his movie rather than a salary cap workaround.

If the Lakers let their current front office handle free agency, their roster will look kinda like the Tune Squad’s roster. (Starting five next year: LeBron, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Tweety Bird, the Looney Tunes Grandma.) But LeBron seems to have the power to make Space Jam 2 into the movie he wants, and the best use for it would be as an instrument to make the Lakers into the team he wants. Let Klay Thompson fill this movie with as many references to Swedish arthouse cinema as he wants if it means he’ll be the Lakers’ starting 2-guard next year.