The Lakers need to make a drastic move if they want to win another championship with LeBron James, whether it’s trading for Kyrie Irving or other players. If they don’t make changes, things could get awkward quickly. How bad would things need to get for LeBron to follow in Kevin Durant’s footsteps and become the next star to request a trade?
KD recently met with Nets owner Joe Tsai and reiterated his desire to be traded, while adding an ultimatum if he were to stay. The stalemate is being felt around the league. Durant is currently holding up a Donovan Mitchell trade from the Jazz. And unless KD is dealt, LeBron won’t get his wish to trade Russell Westbrook for Kyrie.
Meanwhile, James met with the Lakers to discuss his deal and learn the direction of the team under new head coach Darvin Ham, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes. James has only one year left on his contract and has yet to sign an extension, though he’s eligible now to re-up for $46.7 million in 2023-24 with a player option for 2024-25 worth $49 million. He would likely extend until just 2024, the year his oldest son, Bronny James, can enter the draft. There’s no rush on an extension. LeBron has until June 30, 2023, to sign it, meaning the will-he-or-won’t-he debate could loom all year.
The Heat and Cavs previously dumped everything they could to bolster their rosters around LeBron, whereas the Lakers have been more reluctant to empty the rest of their cupboard by giving up both their 2027 and 2029 firsts. If Irving can’t be acquired because the Nets decide to keep him, the Lakers could try to turn to Myles Turner and Buddy Hield from the Pacers, or other combinations of players, such as Jordan Clarkson and Patrick Beverley from the Jazz. The Lakers don’t resemble a championship contender right now, so LeBron should hold off on signing an extension until the roster improves.
LeBron said in 2020 he wants to be a Laker for the rest of his life. In 2021, he said he “truly hopes” to be with the Lakers for the rest of his career. But in 2022, he still hasn’t re-signed. He loves living in Los Angeles, he says. It’s home now for his family. It’s where his business is. It’s 12 months of great weather. It’s the Lakers. If he can win here, it would add to the team’s storied legacy of 17 championships—tied with the Celtics, a potential Finals foe in 2023 or 2024. If LeBron can get through the Warriors and then the Celtics (or anyone in the East), it would bolster his legacy. But right now the Lakers don’t look like the best team to write the final chapters of his basketball career with unless they dramatically improve.
Short of that, LeBron will waste away another great individual season, one worthy of a chance to make a Finals run. At 37 years old, he doesn’t have many years left. Even if James somehow ends up producing well into his 40s like Tom Brady has in the NFL, he’s still approaching the end of his career.
LeBron said on TNT earlier this year that he thought he became the GOAT after leading the Cavs to a 3-1 comeback over the Warriors in the 2016 Finals. Fine. But it wasn’t until Brady’s last Super Bowl win that he officially cemented himself as the GOAT. Even lingering haters now admit his status is undeniable. The approval of others should not matter that much to LeBron, but the public is who will ultimately write his story, as it has for Brady. There is no amount of marketing that Nike and Klutch can do that will influence more people than LeBron can just by continuing to win. For years, those who say Jordan is the GOAT have knocked LeBron for not matching MJ’s competitive spirit. They feel that Kobe Bryant always came closer to channeling Jordan. LeBron dubbed himself the GOAT and said he has nothing left to prove. With so much left to give, if he slows his pursuit of titles as he nears the career finish line, one of his closing chapters will tell a story of unfulfilled potential.
Brady has always said his favorite ring is “the next one.” And he has continued to pursue championships by leaving the Patriots and going to the Buccaneers. Does LeBron feel the same desire to keep winning?
If the Lakers don’t do everything they can to build a title contender around LeBron, or if they try to do so and fail, he should leave for basketball reasons. Family, business, and the joy that comes from living in Los Angeles might outweigh the desire to bolster his legacy in a new city. But there are still chapters to be written that involve him winning on the court.
Fair or not, many people see James as a tier below Michael Jordan in the GOAT debate. The way he’s handling his closing years compared to Brady is one of the reasons. Jordan simply has more rings. Should LeBron really be slowing up as he nears the finish line when he still has gas left in the tank?
LeBron played at an MVP level last season. But the rest of the team has a lot to prove for him to have any chance at winning the award for a fifth time and for the franchise to make a deep playoff run. Or, frankly, to make the postseason at all.
With Westbrook failing to meet expectations last season, LeBron needed to absorb more shot creation, which led to his averaging his most points in more than a decade. Westbrook kept jacking jumpers, stopped screening, and rarely cut. Meanwhile, LeBron was forced to play center for a long midseason stretch because Anthony Davis was absent. LeBron did it all. Russ didn’t try to evolve because he can’t or is unwilling to adapt, a skill that his own teammate James put on display right in front of him all season. Until Westbrook is traded or evolves into a more useful player, and until Davis can stay healthy enough to be more like the 2019-20 version of himself, the Lakers will go nowhere.
Westbrook will go down as LeBron’s biggest whiff on a teammate choice in his career, but Irving is clearly a better option because of his shooting and decision-making. Marc Stein wrote on Substack last month that James “badly” wants the Lakers to flip Russ for Kyrie. Even if Russ fits into the role that Ham is envisioning as a versatile offensive weapon, he still wouldn’t be as effective as Irving, or anyone else that would come back in a trade.
If it’s not Kyrie, it could be Hield and Turner. Both of them would add shooting, and Hield could play the Malik Monk role at a higher level. A Turner-Davis duo has the upside to anchor the league’s best defense. The Lakers could play with two bigs, space the floor with one, or go small with LeBron in advantageous moments.
But there is tension between what LeBron needs and what the Lakers need. The Lakers must also think long-term so the franchise is built for success whether LeBron is there or not. Trading for Irving, then signing him to a max next summer despite James only being under contract through 2024 seems like a potential recipe for disaster after the way things ended for Irving in Cleveland and Boston, and how things have played out in Brooklyn. But trading distant picks for Irving makes all the sense in the world to James, because for him it’s all about the 2022-23 season.
Right now, the Western Conference is stacked and Los Angeles isn’t one of the top contenders. The Warriors took back the top spot by winning the title, and they could be even better this season. The Mavs retooled around Luka Doncic. The Suns re-signed Deandre Ayton. Contenders like the Nuggets and Clippers are getting healthy again. And good young teams like the Pelicans and Timberwolves could make the leap like the Grizzlies did last season. This would leave the Lakers on the playoff bubble.
What would it take for LeBron to reach the same point as Durant: an unwillingness by the front office to give up both firsts? A second consecutive year missing the playoffs? Russ still derailing games in January?
If LeBron does get a wandering eye, here’s how I’d rank his best fits around the league.
1. Suns: LeBron is BFFs with Chris Paul and old friends with James Jones. The Suns want Durant. Wouldn’t they also want LeBron? Phoenix is a great city itself, Arizona has lower taxes than California, and it’s just a short flight from Los Angeles. LeBron would get accused of riding coattails, but the Suns fell short in 2020-21, looked beatable in 2021-22, and are getting a little long in the tooth in 2022-23.
2. Knicks: Maybe the Knicks are reluctant to dump everything for Donovan Mitchell because they’re hoping James could shake loose in L.A. It’d be an upside play to bring New York back to glory. LeBron would be embraced by Knicks fans overnight in ways he’s never been by Lakers fans because of their love for Kobe Bryant.
3. Blazers: Helping Damian Lillard finish the job in Portland would be a cool addition to LeBron’s story after Dame has fallen short so many times in his career. Winning with another franchise that hasn’t won in years would be another point in his favor in the GOAT debate, too.
4. Cavaliers: Koby Altman and the Cleveland front office have assembled one of the NBA’s best young teams. LeBron could help lift them up, repeating history like he did before but with way more youth on the team.
5. Heat: Ditto here. LeBron could return to Miami to assemble the Heatles 2.0. If the Heat aren’t a match for Durant, they could be for James.
6. Warriors: Imagine if Golden State flipped Klay Thompson, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and future picks for LeBron, then elevated Jordan Poole and Moses Moody into Klay’s old role. They might win the next three championships. Would a collaboration between LeBron and Steph Curry plus Draymond Green end up representing one of the best teams in league history? This would be less an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” decision like it seemed to be for Durant and more of a partnership between two of the greatest living artists.
7. Grizzlies: On the flip side, LeBron joining Ja Morant to load up Golden State’s biggest rival would be great for drama. Same with Durant if he were willing to go to the Grizzlies.
8. Hawks: Klutch South could form if LeBron took his talents to Atlanta with Trae Young and Dejounte Murray (and Jalen Johnson). Watching Young and James create buckets for each other could resemble shades of Steph and Draymond, except LeBron would take it to levels that Draymond never could on offense.
9. Sixers: Let’s say things go wrong for James Harden in Philadelphia, and Daryl Morey needs to make a move to make the most of Joel Embiid’s prime. Wouldn’t Morey make a call on the player he has called the GOAT by a bit of a big margin?
LeBron would be following his own playbook if he did leave. Just like he did after four years with Miami, then after four years with Cleveland. LeBron is entering a fifth season now with Los Angeles and the franchise is showing signs of decay, like the Heat and Cavaliers were at the time he left.
In 2018, I wondered whether LeBron should enter the mercenary era of his career:
Mercenary LeBron seems like NBA fan fiction, but it’s something to consider since his extended stays seem to last one year too long. The Heatles were in shambles by their fourth season, much like the Cavs are now. There’d be no greater legacy than to win across eras with players from different generations, and LeBron has the unique opportunity to take that kind of legacy to its outer limits. Houston appears to be a worthy adversary to the Warriors’ reign of terror, but there’s one player who can make sure that’s the case. It’s time for LeBron to build another titan.
LeBron chose to join the Lakers, and it did seem like another titan had arrived. They won the title in their first season with Davis. Then it all came apart. AD regressed. Westbrook proved to be a stubborn fallen star. Now Golden State is back at full strength and the Lakers are on the playoff bubble.
LeBron and Michael have totally different journeys. Maybe being a mercenary is part of LeBron’s story. LeBron got drafted to a team that failed to properly surround him with championship pieces. The Bulls found future Hall of Fame teammates like Scottie Pippen just as Jordan was at his peak. LeBron had no choice but to wander to make the most of his prime years. He left, and came home, and then left again. It’s special in his own way that LeBron was able to win titles with three different teams during different eras of basketball. Adding a fourth, or even a fifth, would only further strengthen his argument as the legend who brought a championship to everywhere he played.
The Lakers have avenues to change their roster as long as LeBron gives them time. Maybe by waiting to dump Russ, they could retain one of their future firsts, and thus the ability to make another important move. Next summer, the Lakers could always add Irving when he’s an unrestricted free agent rather than trade for him now. The 2024 class is strong, with Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, and Klay Thompson all set to become unrestricted free agents. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will have player options. Who knows which trade targets could become available in the future. The Lakers can retool with or without LeBron.
A return could be massive for LeBron, though less than what the Nets could receive for KD since James is on an expiring contract while Durant has four years left. A trade could set them up for more sustainable success than what can be offered by an aging LeBron on short-term deals and an injury-prone AD.
I don’t see the Lakers being the team that decides on its own to trade LeBron. It feels like something that LeBron would have to push for, and only then would the Lakers try to get everything they can for him, like the Nets are with Durant. But if GM Rob Pelinka and team president Jeanie Buss agree there is no path to a title with LeBron, and feel threatened that he could leave, then it could be mutually beneficial.
With James still posting MVP numbers, there’s time for him to earn more rings and convince more NBA players, personnel, fanatics, and casuals that he’s the GOAT. But right now, the Lakers are nowhere near close to the top of the West. We’re about to find out who takes LeBron for granted, whether it’s the Lakers organization for their unwillingness to improve the roster or LeBron himself for not proactively finding a new team. The more this drags on, the more pressure will mount on the Lakers to find a fix.