LeBron James hears you. Sincerely, he does.
He gets that if he’s really serious about continuing to burnish a legacy that he himself has said makes him the greatest basketball player of all time, he should’ve made like a number of his All-NBA peers and demanded a trade out of Los Angeles to a team that would give him a better chance of winning a fifth title. That argument is worth something.
It is not, however, in the eyes of the King, worth between $97.1 million and $111 million, depending upon how the salary cap rises, to stay in the city where he and his family have grown “increasingly entrenched” over the past four years. So rather than trying to work his way to someone else’s team or putting himself in line to be the top target of the underwhelming rebuilders likely to have the most cap space next summer, he decided to just go ahead and take the Lakers’ giant purple and gold bags of money instead. After all, you don’t get to be the highest-paid player in NBA history and a literal billionaire by passing up these types of opportunities. Thanks for thinking of him, though.
It felt pointed that news of James’s new two-year extension to stay with the Lakers beyond the end of next season broke three minutes before the official release of the 2022-23 regular-season schedule. It served as something of a curt rejoinder to remind a basketball-watching world that’s spent weeks hanging on every Kevin Durant rumor that—no matter what anyone else says or does, on or off the court—it is James, who enters next season just 1,325 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time scoring record, who remains the NBA’s prime mover and preeminent power broker.
The new deal represents something of a return to form for James. After signing a six-year, below-market-rate deal to join the Heat in the seismic summer of 2010, LeBron consistently chose to ink shorter agreements with player options in the final year—the so-called “one-plus-one” or “two-plus-one” construction. From a financial perspective, the structure gives James more bites at the proverbial apple; since the maximum salary he can be paid under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement is 35 percent of the salary cap, opting out only to sign a new deal once the salary cap rises allows him to repeatedly reap the maximum benefit from the rising tide lifting the league’s boats.
It also affords LeBron a level of leverage commensurate with his accomplishments and standing, matched by few, if any, of his peers. It carries with it a tacit demand that the front office keeps the gas pedal stomped squarely into the floorboards in pursuit of a championship, in whatever form that takes: spending deep into the luxury tax to improve the roster, trading future draft picks for win-now talent, orienting every aspect of the organization toward the goal of augmenting LeBron’s all-time gifts and overall happiness—you name it.
James leaned on that leverage play throughout his second stint in Cleveland, and amended it slightly when he left for Los Angeles in 2018, agreeing to a four-year deal, but with that familiar player option in the final season. After the Lakers won the NBA championship in the bubble in 2020, though, James tore up that option in favor of a new two-year extension that, notably, did not feature any options—ensuring he’d remain a Laker through at least the summer of 2023 and, to some extent, calling into question the degree to which he could steer the franchise in accordance with his whims.
Nobody’s too worried about organizational alignment when you’re winning 70 percent of your games and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. When an injury-plagued disappointment leads your top two stars to recruit a third who doesn’t seem like he fits, and then he reallyyy doesn’t fit, and that plus more injuries means everything goes shithouse? That’s when executives might start balking a bit at the notion of moving every last positive asset to rectify the mistake, effectively strip-mining the future just to marginally upgrade the present. When that happens, pundits start wondering whether even bigger changes might be in the offing.
Wednesday’s agreement should quell those questions for a bit. James didn’t secure a no-trade clause—he couldn’t, because he was extending an existing contract that didn’t include one—but because he can’t be traded for six months after the date of his extension, a period that extends past the 2023 trade deadline, there’s no way he’ll be on the move this season. Combine that with the 15 percent trade kicker that he got added into his contract—a monster bonus that the Lakers would have to pay out upon moving him—and, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, the new deal will “likely make [James] a Laker for as long as he chooses.” Which, again, might only be until the summer of 2024, when James holds a player option for the final season of the deal.
That’s why, while the extension does table some questions that would’ve been hanging over the Lakers’ season—I suspect first-year head coach Darvin Ham appreciates not having to deal with questions about whether LeBron’s coming back every night for six months—it raises plenty of others. Chief among them—well, outside of the one about whether we need to start mocking Bronny to the Lakers in The Ringer’s 2024 NBA Draft Guide—is: How does this help the Lakers go about building a championship-level roster?
The Lakers’ contending window has essentially been “as long as we have LeBron” ever since he arrived. This extension ensures that both James and Anthony Davis will be in Laker uniforms through the end of the 2023-24 season, with an additional season possible if both pick up their options for ’24-’25. In the myriad rumored trades bandied about to retool a team that went a disastrous 33-49 and ranked in the bottom 10 on both offense and defense, the Lakers have reportedly been reluctant to part with both their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks—the likely table stakes for jettisoning Russell Westbrook, whether for Kyrie Irving, a Buddy Hield–Myles Turner package from Indiana, or any other significant move. One wonders whether securing James’s commitment for at least two more seasons might make Rob Pelinka and Co. feel a bit more emboldened to trade later for now—or, on the flip side, if the Lakers might be less likely to flip the ’27 and ’29 firsts for immediate help (coughKyriecough) because they’ve already secured LeBron’s signature.
James re-upping at the max—as he has done at every turn since Miami, and appropriately so, because he’s been worth it—means the Lakers won’t get the benefit of a James Harden–style sub-max discount to add more help in free agency next summer. That would preclude the Lakers from adding a max-level star to pair with James and Davis, but they will have some flexibility: LeBron and AD’s contracts, plus an $11 million player option for Talen Horton-Tucker, are the only significant deals currently on L.A.’s books. That puts them in position to have just north of $20 million in cap space in the summer of 2023, and well over $42 million in room for 2024—enough, if they shed Westbrook’s contract in one way or another without committing to significant long-term money in return, to potentially reload the roster with the kind of players who best complement LeBron.
(The $42 million would also be enough for a third max salary—although, after seeing how things have fallen apart at home and in Brooklyn with that kind of construction, maybe discretion is the better part of valor there.)
All of that, of course, is predicated on the basis of James and Davis being a viable starting point for a championship contender, both now and in two years’ time … and, frankly, it’s reasonable for your mileage to vary on that. James has played 101 games over the past two years, has suffered significant injuries in three of his four seasons in L.A., and will turn 38 in December. Davis has played 76 games over the past two seasons, hasn’t consistently made jumpers since the bubble, and will turn 30 in March. After laying waste to the league when they shared the court in their first two seasons together, they were a net negative last season—even without Westbrook on the floor.
The hope is that a younger, more athletic roster with a higher defensive ceiling and more shooting—and, ideally, either without Westbrook or in a reconfigured role (which, I’ll believe it when I see it)—will provide both more cover and more space for the two superstars to resume wreaking havoc. Even if Pelinka’s most recent round of gambles pays off, though, and if the likes of Horton-Tucker, Lonnie Walker IV, Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr., and Juan Toscano-Anderson all turn in career-best play, it’s difficult to slot the Lakers in as a true contender in a stacked conference featuring the defending champion Warriors, Suns, and a slew of other talented teams on the hunt.
The fear, then, is that this is ostensibly the Lakers throwing good money after bad as a matter of organizational principle—that, as they did when they gave Kobe Bryant a two-year extension coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon despite having no realistic chance to compete for championships, they’re ponying up to keep LeBron in L.A. because the Lakers historically take care of their superstars.
Setting aside the fact that there are much, much worse reputations for a franchise to have, the math still doesn’t quite scan. Kobe was seven months removed from the Achilles tear and everybody knew that, as willing as his spirit was, he’d never be the same again. LeBron’s coming off an abdominal strain and some knee and ankle soreness, and, when healthy, played at a near-MVP level last season.
Maybe, given his age and injuries, James is closer to the 10th-best player in the NBA than he is to the top of the mountain; even so, virtually every team in the NBA would readily fork over as much money as humanly possible to make sure that the eighth- or ninth-best dude in the world wore their jersey. The Lakers offered it to make sure LeBron keeps wearing theirs; LeBron took it, and it’s a pretty good bet that he’ll hit the floor in October intent on showing he’s still worth all of it and then some.
Whether the Lakers will contend for a championship depends on a lot of variables: solving the Westbrook problem in one way or another, getting Davis back to the game-breaking form he displayed during his first season and a half in L.A., getting much more out of the complementary pieces this season than they did last time around. The Lakers at least go into opening night with a chance, though. Even in Year 20, even with generations of young stars coming for his crown, LeBron James still gives you that.