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Is It Time for LeBron James and the Lakers to Split?

With the trade deadline looming, L.A. needs to salvage its season before it’s too late

AP Images/Ringer illustration

“You’ll love the stories.”

That’s what I remember my dad telling me when he got us a subscription to Sports Illustrated around Christmas in 2001. I was only 11. The first cover I can remember featured Michael Jordan with his mouth wide open, eyes locked on the rim, and the ball rolling off his fingertips as he hung in midair between two defenders.

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The photo was quintessential Jordan … except he was wearing a Wizards jersey. I was too young to have fully appreciated Jordan’s prime years or the six rings he won with the Bulls. But when I was a kid, that didn’t matter. MJ’s run with the Wizards served as an entry point into the history of basketball and a chance to witness his greatness, even if it was fading.

SI barely exists nowadays, but I’ve been thinking about that Jordan-on-the-Wizards cover lately while watching LeBron James. The NBA’s oldest player has gray hairs scattered throughout his beard, yet he still rumbles down the floor like a freight train and flies above the defense.

Five weeks after Jordan’s SI spread, James made his first cover appearance as a 17-year-old junior at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School. He was wearing a green headband and silver jersey while palming a golden ball above large type that read “THE CHOSEN ONE.” One year later, in 2003, Jordan would retire just as LeBron was drafted first by the Cavs. It’s now been over two decades, and LeBron is in the midst of his 21st pro season. He’s 39, still averaging 25/7/7. He’s the NBA’s all-time leader in points scored, and he’s climbing the ranks in assists. Add 10 Finals appearances, four victories, four MVPs, and his upcoming 20th All-Star appearance, and there’s a reason the GOAT conversation comes down to him and MJ.

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But LeBron’s circumstances are different than Jordan’s were at age 39. MJ averaged 21 points per game on career-low shooting numbers in two seasons with the Wizards, who finished fifth in their division both years. There was no expectation of contention. LeBron, meanwhile, remains an All-NBA talent capable of leading his team deep into the playoffs, as he did last year when the Lakers made the West finals.

The question now is whether the Lakers, who are currently tied for ninth in the West at 24-24, can provide LeBron with a last dance and not a sad farewell tour.

LeBron and the Lakers Face a Crossroads

The Lakers won the title in 2020, but the roster has since declined. Valuable rotation players such as Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have departed. Big mistakes have been made, headlined by the trade for Russell Westbrook. The offense has suffered, not placing in the top 10 in any of LeBron’s seasons in Los Angeles. This season, the Lakers are 21st in offensive rating and only 15th in defensive rating, even as LeBron is still shining and his costar Anthony Davis is playing his best basketball in years.

Bron and AD aren’t the perfect duo, of course. Davis still doesn’t regularly shoot 3s, and the offense can’t run through him, while James jogs on defense more than ever before. Lineups with both of them have outscored opponents by a mere 0.3 points per 100 possessions. LeBron is still great, but not to the extent that he can will his team to wins on a nightly basis. Even he needs help.

And so for the third consecutive season, the front office needs to make a move to reverse offseason blunders and give the Lakers a chance to win it all. There is no trade that general manager Rob Pelinka can make ahead of the February 8 deadline that would turn the Lakers into favorites, but by adding more two-way talent, he can give the team a better chance.

LeBron said in 2017 that he had “nothing left to prove.” That may be true, but he still has plenty left he can accomplish—and plenty more to add to his legacy. Jordan won his six championships all with the same franchise, with largely the same group of supporting players, during the same decade. That is something special that James will never achieve. But part of what defines LeBron’s legacy is his mercenary status. He won twice with Miami. He did it for Cleveland. He brought the Lakers back to glory. LeBron has won everywhere he’s gone, with different sets of teammates across different eras of basketball. There is something special about that, too.

Jordan also never won a title in his late 30s. Only one arguable GOAT has: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won back-to-back championships at age 40 and 41. The end of Kareem’s career may provide a blueprint for LeBron: Abdul-Jabbar was a starter but not a star for Lakers squads led by Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Even so, those fifth and sixth titles bolstered his legacy, highlighting his longevity and adaptability.

James is better at age 39 than Abdul-Jabbar was, but times have changed—both for him and for the league. LeBron is no longer the clear-cut best player in the world, capable of dragging his team to the Finals. And the NBA is better and deeper than ever, with several teams that have realistic championship aspirations, including the defending champion Nuggets—not to mention upstarts like the Wolves and Thunder or veteran teams that are rounding into form like the Suns and Clippers.

Even if the Lakers do trade all their picks and youth, it may not be enough to make another run. Combined with the fact that LeBron has a player option to become a free agent this summer, emptying the cupboard of future assets isn’t the kind of no-brainer for the Lakers that it was for the Cavs when they moved first-rounders for role players—or, for that matter, for the Lakers when they traded an entire youth movement for AD.

The dichotomy of this team has been on display in recent days. On Saturday night, LeBron played 48 minutes in a double-overtime victory over the Warriors, tallying 36 points, 20 rebounds, and 12 assists. The performance should serve as a reminder to the Lakers front office that he’s still worth investing in. But on Monday, the Lakers got blown out by the Rockets as a reminder of why they aren’t close to resembling a team that has a chance to play until June.

On nights like Saturday, I remember the stories of late-career Kareem hoisting the trophy twice more to cap off a Hall of Fame career. But on nights like Monday, I can’t shake that image of Jordan in the Wizards jersey, failing to even make the playoffs. As LeBron approaches the end of his career, how can he make the most of it?

Los Angeles Needs a Shake-Up

First things first, the pressure should be on Pelinka to improve the Lakers and on head coach Darvin Ham to optimize the roster after a season of questionable decisions and justified criticism. Otherwise, they risk another frustrating result and a summer of hard questions.

The Lakers have quite a lot of assets to help them make additions. Let’s start with the players, ranking them in order of approximate trade value, which would differ for each receiving team depending on their respective needs:

1. Austin Reaves: Reports say he’s virtually untouchable because he’s only 25 years old and on a team-friendly, $12 million contract following an impressive run in the second half and playoffs last year. Reaves is a good all-around offensive player who’s arguably been underused by Ham. But his 3-pointer is not falling at the same rate anymore, and he’s one of the reasons L.A.’s perimeter defense is suffering. He gets targeted, and his effort has wavered. The Lakers need to weigh whether he’s truly a keeper or not.

2. D’Angelo Russell: It’s understandable that certain teams wouldn’t want DLo, given that his aloof off-ball defense and papier-mâché on-ball defense make him a target for seasoned playoff-level opponents. But at only age 27, DLo is capable of high-scoring performances, as proved lately by the fact that he’s averaged 27 points and 6.2 assists over his past nine games. It’s the first time the Lakers have empowered him to score the way he did in his lone All-Star season with the Nets. At the very least, he’s proving that he has value beyond just a $17.3 million salary filler.

3. Jalen Hood-Schifino: This placement might be a hot take since he’s struggled in limited opportunities with the Lakers, but he’s been excelling in the G League. Last year, JHS was just a first-round pick that many teams had ranked in the lottery. At 6-foot-5, he has size for a guard, and he’s only 20. Plenty of teams would be happy to invest in him long-term even if today it looks as if the Lakers made a mistake taking him over the instant-impact players that went right behind him.

4. Rui Hachimura: There’s been no consistency to Rui’s role or minutes this season with the Lakers, which serves as one of the massive blunders of Ham’s coaching. But he’s still only 25, and as a big 6-foot-8 defender who can get hot on offense, he could recreate the two-way flashes he had down the stretch for the Lakers last season. With a $15.7 million salary, he’s fairly paid for a player of his caliber and potential.

5. Gabe Vincent: Vincent has barely played this season and is currently sidelined following knee surgery. But as a point-of-attack defender who can generate clutch buckets on offense, he was a key rotation piece for Miami’s run to the Finals last year, and now he’s making only $11 million annually for the next three seasons.

6. Max Christie: Christie is a 20-year-old wing who’s been an inconsistent shooter with the opportunities provided to him. But if he reaches his upside, he could be a 3-and-D player with awesome skill off the dribble.

7. Maxwell Lewis: An unproven rookie wing drafted in the second round; the 21-year-old could someday become a 3-and-D rotation player.

As far as picks, this is what the Lakers have to trade:

  • 2026 swap
  • 2028 swap
  • 2029 or 2030 first
  • 2029 or 2030 swap
  • Five seconds

The Lakers’ Biggest Needs

Let’s get into what the Lakers should be targeting on the trade market:

1. Perimeter Shot Creators Who Can Defend

Neither Reaves nor Russell is a defensive stopper. Both of them could get targeted in the playoffs. Splitting them up could provide better balance, which may explain the Lakers’ well-reported interest in Hawks point guard Dejounte Murray, whom they’ve reportedly tried to acquire for Russell, the 2029 first, and a swap.

But giving up DLo and two valuable picks would be a massive bet on Murray: Considering how well Russell has played, is Murray really that much of an upgrade? On offense, Murray has largely been subpar scoring from the perimeter, making 33.6 percent of his 3s over the past four seasons. This season, he’s up to 38.8 percent from 3 while posting career highs from midrange (55 percent). And on defense, can he return to form? As a younger player on the Spurs, Murray was an All-Defensive guard. His effort and intensity have slipped ever since, but the chance to compete for a title and a chip on his shoulder might inspire a return to prime form. If his newfound shooting success is sustainable, he could provide the type of offensive spark that DLo has of late, along with greater defensive upside. At only 27, with a four-year, $114 million contract set to kick in next season, he’s a reasonable long-term investment. But he’s not a surefire improvement.

Even if Russell’s recent run is put aside, he’s undeniably a more versatile shooter than Reaves, with a longer track record of higher efficiency. And he’s a more seasoned playmaker, too. Reaves is taller, but not a significantly better defender than DLo, especially this season. So I can’t help but wonder whether the Lakers are playing hardball with all this “Reaves is untouchable” stuff that keeps being reported. Could the Lakers just be trying to gain leverage in negotiations with the Hawks, who aren’t finding much of a market for Murray? Reaves is undeniably a better fit for Atlanta, too. Maybe acquiring Murray for Reaves (plus a salary filler, while keeping a first) is what the Lakers could want?

The Lakers will look around, though, and keeping Reaves is still preferable in most deals considering his youth and his contract. It’s been reported that the Lakers have interest in Raptors wing Bruce Brown, whom they pursued in free agency last summer. My understanding recently is that interest in Brown is muted due to high demands from Toronto. The Athletic’s Jovan Buha says the Lakers view Malcolm Brogdon, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Tyus Jones as lateral moves or downgrades compared to Russell. I would agree. However, I’d be intrigued by a package that sends Vincent and multiple seconds for Jones since he’s a reliable facilitator and a knockdown shooter. Currently, Washington’s demands exceed what the Lakers would likely be willing to give up.

2. Wings That Can Hit 3s and Defend

Ham has a thing for Taurean Prince. Even though he’s an inferior defender compared to Jarred Vanderbilt and Hachimura and shows little desire to move without the ball on offense, he’s started in all 45 of his games this season. Perhaps it’s because Ham has trusted Prince dating back to when the former was an assistant coach in Atlanta. For brief moments, it seems like Ham is starting to grasp that he has better options. The lineup that helped lead the Lakers to the playoffs last season (Bron, AD, Reaves, Russell, and Vanderbilt) had played only nine minutes this season until Saturday’s win over Golden State, when they logged 19 minutes and played with tremendous effort to fuel the Lakers to a win. But then on Monday, Vanderbilt was still coming off the bench. It’s a necessity for Ham to lean more heavily into this lineup, even if it means trading Prince to take him away as an option. Removing the temptation to start Cam Reddish, another ex-Hawks player that has been one of Ham’s favorites this season, and finding some better talent at wing should be prioritized, too.

The Lakers have interest in Jerami Grant, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Royce O’Neale, according to The Athletic. Would the Nets accept Vincent and a second for O’Neale? At only 6-foot-4, O’Neale is on the smaller side, but he provides better defense than Prince and far better shooting and decision-making within the flow of the offense than Reddish. Finney-Smith would be a better addition, but the Nets are reportedly asking for two first-round picks for him—an unreasonable demand not worth considering.

The best player on Buha’s list is Grant, who could bring defensive versatility while also serving as a multifaceted talent on offense and a reliable shooter who can get scorching hot off the dribble. The issue is whether the Lakers would have enough to make an offer that’s acceptable to the Blazers. Are Hachimura, Vincent, one swap, and one first enough for Portland to deal Grant? I have my doubts, especially since he hasn’t expressed any urgency to be traded. Giving up any more, whether it’s Reaves instead of Vincent or an additional swap, could be a bit much for Grant. As much as he’d help, he doesn’t rebound well for his position and struggled the last time he was in the playoffs, four years ago with Denver.

3. A More Reliable Backup Center

The Lakers have given chances to Christian Wood and Jaxson Hayes throughout the season, and it seems that Wood has won the battle for minutes behind AD. But Wood hasn’t been shooting 3s as well as he did in recent seasons, and he remains unreliable on defense.

Last season, the Lakers went to the Jazz to find upgrades to the rotation by acquiring Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley (with Russell, via Minnesota). If they do that again in the weeks ahead, they should pursue Kelly Olynyk, who is a 32-year-old big man who can shoot 3s at a 40 percent clip, pass the ball, and play solid positional defense. Olynyk is exactly the type of big who could play with or without Davis in the lineup, giving Ham his desired frontcourt lineup flexibility to dictate matchups against opponents.

Would Vincent and seconds for Olynyk be acceptable to Utah? It’d depend on the type of demand Olynyk receives leaguewide. But since he’s an upcoming free agent, future seconds from the Lakers and Vincent’s theoretical value once he gets healthy would be quite competitive.

4. A Better Head Coach

It may not matter what acquisitions the Lakers make since Ham has also been one of the NBA’s worst coaches and it appears he has lost the trust of his roster. Players side-eye him during games and say, “That’s a coaching decision” when questioned by the media about his lineup choices. I recently sat a few rows behind the Lakers bench and watched the lifeless team, even during a win against the Blazers. When Ham was in the middle of the huddle, the team appeared as disinterested as a group of students scrolling TikTok while their teacher talks.

Blame is shared by everyone in charge. Hiring an unproven head coach was a risk by Pelinka and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss from the beginning. After they won a title with Frank Vogel, they were too cheap to pay one of the league’s greatest coaches, Ty Lue, in 2019. If LeBron still had the power he did in Cleveland when David Blatt got fired midway through the 2015-16 season despite a 30-11 record, Lue would’ve been hired in the first place in L.A. And this season, Ham would certainly be a goner by now too, probably in favor of assistant coach Phil Handy.

To Ham’s credit, he did find the right combinations in the second half last year following the deadline. Buss is likely hoping for a similar result rather than firing a head coach in the second season of a four-year contract. But if this season is a failure, a big decision will need to be made about his future.

Looking Ahead to the Summer

In the weeks ahead of the deadline, the Lakers could try to thread the needle by making moves that will allow them to retain their future assets and improve the team as is. Because if they keep their powder dry, they’ll have more tradable picks in July. If they don’t make any trades now, this is what their asset cupboard would look like this offseason:

  • 2024 or 2025 first
  • 2026 swap
  • 2028 swap
  • 2029 first
  • 2030 swap
  • 2031 first
  • Six seconds

That’s three firsts and three swaps, on top of all the player assets they have. That’d be enough pieces to put them in the running for a long list of possibilities. Trae Young would likely welcome a trade to Los Angeles at any time. Murray could still be available, too, since the Hawks don’t need to trade him now. The playoffs could force some teams to confront hard questions, freeing players who aren’t currently on the radar: Maybe Cleveland will want to split up Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. By that point, the Lakers would have more to exchange.

I’d angle to trade for Olynyk and Murray now and be willing to give up Reaves, Vincent, and salary filler and up to one first and multiple seconds. This approach would allow the Lakers to set themselves up for big moves this offseason while also improving the current roster. But I’m merely reading the tea leaves and toying with a trade machine. In reality, there’s no guarantee that by deadline day, the Lakers would have the best offer on the table.

The downside of standing pat now is that it would minimize the odds that the Lakers could capitalize on incredible production from LeBron and AD. Is there any guarantee that LeBron can do this again at age 40? Can Davis stay this healthy again? This could be it. Plus, if the Lakers don’t move with urgency—especially if that approach results in an early playoff loss—and if LeBron thinks the organization is too focused on the future, he could decide to walk this summer.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst speculated on his podcast recently that he’s “not certain” that LeBron will play for the Lakers next season. This feels especially noteworthy coming from Windhorst, who’s incredibly plugged in and has covered LeBron since James was in high school.

After a disappointing stretch after the in season tournament, it’s easy to imagine LeBron changing teams again this summer, whether in pursuit of more titles, a chance to play with his son Bronny James, or both. It’d be a clean break. LeBron could sign into cap space elsewhere or opt in and demand to be traded with one year remaining on his contract.

If a breakup is inevitable, I can’t help but wonder whether the best time for both LeBron and the Lakers to make a change is now, ahead of the deadline: James could join a contender, and Los Angeles could get something in return. Would the Heat, Knicks, or Sixers make an all-in move? All of them could offer a better chance at the Finals than the Lakers. What if the Warriors offer a bunch of their picks and young guys? LeBron does love Steph Curry and Draymond Green. Or could the Cavs see appeal in another LeBron homecoming? It’d be quite a final chapter to his career. Changing teams would allow LeBron to take advantage of one of his final years and would allow the Lakers to recoup some value and help lay the groundwork to pursue Luka Doncic later this decade.

But the Lakers are still showing upside, so it’s difficult to imagine either side asking for a divorce just yet—never mind an agreement from both sides that it’s for the best. And that’s understandable. I know the league has more stars than ever, but how many guys would you really take ahead of LeBron if you need to win a Game 7? I’d take Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and possibly Luka, but LeBron has a strong argument over everyone else. Even though James is in coast mode on defense right now, he’s still good enough to lead a refurbished Lakers team. This play from the IST championship against Indiana sticks in my mind:

The game was just a couple of minutes in, and LeBron had already logged his second steal. The Lakers sent two players to Tyrese Haliburton to force the ball out of his hands, and LeBron was flying around in the paint. This time, he sprung in front of Myles Turner to steal the ball and rumbled down the floor to draw a foul in the paint. I sat in the arena thinking, OK, so he still has this in him for the games that matter. When he needs to turn back the clock, he’s shown that he can.

Regular-season thrillers and tournament battles shouldn’t be it for LeBron when he’s still so great, though. Time is running out to pursue Finals rings. The days between now and the trade deadline will reveal whether the Lakers take LeBron for granted. And if they do, LeBron himself shouldn’t. Legends across sports, from Kareem to Tom Brady to Lionel Messi, are proof that late-career accomplishments can be just as meaningful and legacy defining as the ones that came before. And Jordan’s time with the Wizards is proof that great players aren’t bound to a single jersey. For as long as LeBron sustains his level of play, he’ll hold the pen and a chance to write the final chapters of his story.