Seven years after negotiating a rich new contract extension as the agent for a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant, Rob Pelinka—now the vice president of basketball operations for the Lakers—made arrangements to reward another 35-year-old legend, this time from the other side of the table. The beneficiary is LeBron James, who on Wednesday agreed to a two-year, $85 million extension that will commit him to the Lakers through 2023 and his 20th NBA season. James wasn’t a free agent this offseason, but his long-term retention bolsters what was already a more-than-compelling title defense. Just last month, the Lakers poached Sixth Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell away from the neighboring Clippers, traded for Dennis Schröder, added Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews, and re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Soon they’ll strike a deal with Anthony Davis—who shares an agent with LeBron—on the terms of a new contract for the length of his choosing, an agreement conceived in the era of empowerment James brought about.
This kind of extension is a formality, in a sense, for the best player on the NBA’s best team. Technically speaking, James added only a year to his contract beyond the player option he already had. But this is also the next considered step in a career of remarkable intentionality. LeBron came into the league as a phenom at the mercy of bouncing ping-pong balls, but found his own kind of power. Depending on how it’s drawn up, a new contract for LeBron can either apply pressure to his team or relieve it. James understood the distinction and learned how it could maximize his chances to contend. When his value exceeded even the limits of a max contract, he took an active role in collective bargaining to expand the earnings and agency of the superstar class. He saw an option year for its sharp edges and taught an entire generation of players how to wield them.
Now James, as he looks toward the final act of his career, has seen to it that he’ll make $44.5 million in his age-38 season. It’s a precaution, even though LeBron and the Lakers—lifted by Davis’s sparkling prime—might still be in the title hunt by 2023. James is eight months older than Bryant was at the time of his final extension with the Lakers, but the context behind those investments breaks any parallel between them. Kobe was extended largely on ceremony after his extraordinary career was derailed by a ruptured Achilles tendon. Considering how inextricable he had become from the Lakers as an institution, the franchise wasn’t so much extending Bryant as it was extending an idea of itself. “This is a very happy day for Lakers fans and for the Lakers organization,” then-GM Mitch Kupchak said at the time. “We’ve said all along that our priority and hope was to have Kobe finish his career as a Laker, and this should ensure that that happens.”
In LeBron, the Lakers are securing another year with the reigning Finals MVP and the implicit architect of their team. No matter how many times James denies that he holds influence over personnel decisions, Davis is a Laker because of the opportunity to play with LeBron. Making that pairing possible meant trading away the bulk of the team’s previous core. Plausible deniability may be his cover of choice, but James has gone to great lengths to assume control of his own basketball destiny, and has operated too meticulously to leave something as crucial as roster construction to chance. To have LeBron on your team is to fundamentally change the way it’s built, whether due to what LeBron does, what he wants, or what a front office thinks he wants.
The Lakers already won the 2020 title on LeBron’s terms and have since built out their roster in a way that makes them even more formidable—and the clear-cut favorite in 2021. We can discern James’s approval by the flexibility he chose to surrender. LeBron opted out of the final year of each of his past four contracts as a way to maximize his earnings and leverage. This extension breaks that streak, signaling a change in the way the NBA’s most deliberate superstar does business. With this addition, James will make almost $125 million over the next three seasons—nearly as much as he made in his first 11 seasons combined. He will still be underpaid, given the title already in hand, the prestige that comes with putting another icon in purple and gold, and the franchise-altering implications of drawing Davis to the Lakers in the first place. LeBron’s impact can be measured only in waves. First came the blockbuster trade and the ensuing title. Then the calculated commitment to a fortified roster. From there, every ripple will stretch only further, ringing out in ways we can’t yet know but that James, instinctively, seems to understand.