LeBron James flirts with post-Lakers future with Bronny
“I hope,” the commissioner said, “this is the beginning or the middle of the end of the worst of the pandemic.”
Cleveland star LeBron James has found himself stuck in a similar purgatory, hinting on Saturday that he is nearing the end of his tenure at the Los Angeles Lakers.
The four-time MVP has long displayed a keen and relentless sense of when to seek greener pastures. He left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 convinced they had reached a plateau. He dropped out of the Miami Heat in 2014 when health, age, depth and salary issues piled up. He left Cleveland again in 2018 after his partnership with Irving dissolved.
This ‘Decisions’ story is instructive as James is suddenly embroiled in perhaps the darkest chapter of his career. The 2009-10 Cavaliers won 61 games and one playoff series. The 2013-14 Heat won 54 games and reached the Finals. The 2017-18 Cavaliers won 50 games and reached the final.
For comparison, the Lakers (27-31) are ninth in the Western Conference. James’ co-star Anthony Davis is once again sidelined with a serious foot injury that will keep him out for at least a month. James’ third wheel, Russell Westbrook, proved to be a disastrous basketball fit and a major impediment to cap flexibility and trade options for the Lakers. The rest of James’ supporting cast is not up to a long playoff streak, and reinforcements haven’t arrived by the trade deadline.
If the next two months go well, the Lakers, who entered the season as Western Conference favorites, will have the chance to win a playoff series. If they don’t, the Lakers could easily find themselves out of the playoffs for the second time in James’ four seasons.
With all eyes and ears on James in Cleveland, he frankly admitted that this season had been “a hellish storm” and the “weirdest” of his 19-year career. He also went out of his way to praise Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti at length for comments that some observers saw as an insult to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Then, in an interview with Athletic, James said “the door is not closed” on a possible return to Cleveland. The 37-year-old forward added that he plans to play on the same team as his eldest son, Bronny, a high school junior who is on track to be draft eligible in 2024.
Taken together, James’ comments sounded like the NBA equivalent of reactivating his Tinder account and updating his profile picture. He hasn’t given up on the Lakers, who he led to a comeback win over the Utah Jazz following Davis’ foot injury last week. But talking about his future so openly suggests he sees the writing on the wall. Just as his foolproof approach to roster building left the Heat in 2014 and the Cavaliers in 2018 with limited options for improvement, James needs a miracle to reverse his declining fortunes in Los Angeles.
Davis was crucial to the Lakers’ 2020 title push, but his unreliable health has short-circuited the Lakers’ past two seasons. Westbrook is under contract for next season, and trading him this summer won’t return a star. The Lakers don’t have many draft-quality assets or young prospects to cash in on for veteran talent. And while James’ statistical output remains strong, his presence no longer guarantees his team will be among the top contenders for the title as they did earlier in their career.
If James does plot his next move, he can do so in good conscience and without fear of a major backlash. He delivered the 2020 championship, a pair of best-selling jerseys and dozens of nationally televised games to a Lakers franchise that was adrift after Kobe Bryant retired in 2016. He helped bring Davis in town and led the Lakers through the tragic death of Bryant. He didn’t oversee a new Lakers dynasty, but he played spectacularly and aged gracefully. In short, James came, he did “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, and he conquered.
The “when” and “where” of what comes next remains to be seen. James is under contract until the 2022-23 season, meaning he could theoretically be traded this summer or leave as a free agent in the summer of 2023.
His flirtation with the Cavaliers, who are 35-23 and the fourth seed in the East, is particularly intriguing given how well their young plays would complement James. Darius Garland, a first-time All-Star, could serve as an Irving-style secondary ball handler and scorer. Evan Mobley, the 2022 Rookie of the Year favorite, has Davis-like versatility and potential on defense. Jarrett Allen, another first-time all-star, would complete a long and athletic frontcourt capable of helping James manage Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. James praised all three players, saying Mobley was “going to be a damn good basketball player” in November before aligning himself with Garland and Allen.
“Cleveland really deserves this platform and this moment,” James said Saturday. “They themselves have two stars in the game in [Garland] and the big guy, Jarrett Allen. And they have another guy in the All-Star Game, and that’s me.
Few would blame James for a full return to the franchise that drafted him, especially if returning to his home country would facilitate his longtime dream of playing with Bronny. To make a trade for James work this summer, Cleveland could use Kevin Love’s expiring contract to help match wages. Probably the biggest potential stumbling block would be whether the Cavaliers could convince the Lakers to accept a pick-up-laden return package like the one the Brooklyn Nets sent to the Houston Rockets last year for James Harden.
For James and Cleveland, a third act would only make sense if it opens up a championship window and doesn’t rattle the Cavaliers’ well-rounded core. For the Lakers, this summer will bring tough choices: Do they try to sign James for a contract extension, retool around him for one last run before 2023 in free agency, or trade him in a bid to rebuild their base assets and enter a new chapter?
It’s worth considering the spectacle that will consume the Lakers if James returns next season without a real infusion of talent around him or an extension. The Cavaliers and Heat both faced “hellish storms” – to use James’s phrase – when he approached free agency, and the scrutiny would be amplified exponentially in Los Angeles. . While the Lakers generally love the attention, they’ve just endured two grueling and disappointing seasons. Do they have the stomach and stamina for a third?
Now that James is dropping bread crumbs and thinking in public, Pelinka and company will soon have to decide whether this mutually beneficial partnership has run its course.