NBA

Will LeBron James sign a contract extension with the Lakers?

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This is an excerpt from NBA article by Ben Golliver weekly newsletter. Register to get the latest news & commentary and the best #NBATwitter and R/NBA jinks delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Despite all the ink that has been spilled over Kevin Durant’s trade request and the challenges ahead for the Brooklyn Nets, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have seen worse. There’s no honor in comparing disasters, but it’s a useful exercise given that James will soon have to face his final ‘decision’: whether or not to sign a contract extension.

James and Durant each missed more than 25 games with injuries last season, but the Nets qualified for the playoffs and didn’t feel the need to fire their coach. When it comes to co-stars, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook both presented unsolvable issues, despite Westbrook having the more expensive contract and therefore having less commercial value.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a more talented roster and better young players – which isn’t insignificant considering James, 37, and Durant, 33, are in the winning stages of their careers. Despite the chaos surrounding their centerpieces, the Nets managed to add two players in Royce O’Neale and TJ Warren who are more likely to contribute to a 2023 playoff push than any of the Lakers’ economic newcomers.

Given this side-by-side assessment, it’s amusing that Durant sought to hit the eject button while James stood out for his absence from the headline-grabbing drama. Aside from his annual Las Vegas Summer League spree, a well-received Drew League appearance and some backlash over his comments about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia, James has kept a low profile this offseason. Crucially, the four-time MVP will become eligible to sign a two-year, $97 million extension on August 4, but has yet to hint at his intentions.

Against the Nets, Kevin Durant bears the heaviest burden

Perhaps James’ relative silence can be explained by a lack of kindness to say. Since dodging extension questions during his April exit interview, James has watched arch-rival Stephen Curry win a fourth title and then endured a month of unconsummated rumors regarding an Irving trade. -for-Westbrook. As the Lakers continue to scour the league for a deal with Westbrook and pin their hopes on a rebounding campaign from Anthony Davis, the Crosstown Clippers are gearing up to resume the title conversation with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in good health. These are tough times for James, who has insisted winning motivates him but now finds the Lakers stuck without the trade capital needed for a quick fix.

James last faced a contract decision in December 2020, and he signed an extension as there wasn’t much to think about. The Lakers had just won the title in the bubble, James had just been named Finals MVP and Davis had just looked ascendant in his first season in Los Angeles. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was heading to theaters, and James’ dream of playing in the NBA with his teenage son, Bronny, was still several years away.

A lot has changed in the two seasons since, as James battled nagging injuries, saw his supporting cast turn around and flirt with a possible return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. If he chose to sign a new contract with the Lakers that would continue through the 2024-2025 season, it would be a matter of financial and family comfort. Los Angeles is an unrivaled base for its off-court media and entertainment investments, and it could stay home until Bronny, now a rising high school student, becomes eligible for the 2024 draft.

In the field, staying put would be much less desirable. Even if the Lakers landed Irving, they would still trail the top contenders in the West by a considerable margin in depth and cohesion. Alternatively, if Westbrook stays, the Lakers would consider the prospect of another lost season given his poor adjustment with James and Davis. In this scenario, Westbrook’s contract would be canceled next summer, but the resulting cap space would almost certainly not be enough to fill all the holes in the Lakers’ roster.

Proceeding without a contract extension would have its own complications. Clearly, James’ free agency in 2023 would attract full media coverage, with every twist of the Lakers season being analyzed for its impact on his future. This dynamic could prove exhausting and distracting for a revised roster guided by a first-time head coach at Darvin Ham.

Also consider the lessons of this summer, when five notable stars faced obstacles and made concessions. Durant remains in limbo nearly a month after making his trade request, as no suitor has emerged with fantastic offers to blow up Brooklyn. Irving, for his part, received little interest when he asked for signings and trades in June and had to settle for picking his player option.

James Harden was forced to choose between maxing out on salary and maximizing his title shots, and he ended up taking a $15 million pay cut to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers. John Wall, who was shut down by the Houston Rockets last season, agreed to a buyout so he could sign a modest mid-level contract with the Clippers. Westbrook, finally, has parted ways with agent Thad Foucher, who released a statement to ESPN advising his former client to reconcile with the Lakers rather than seek a trade that could lead to a reputation-damaging buyout.

Adam Silver unhappy with trade demands of NBA star players

These situations have made it clear that teams will not leave no stone unturned to appease the biggest names in the sport forever. As the NBA’s “player empowerment” era continues at breakneck speed, even A-listers have to reckon with their waning influence once they get older and their contracts swell.

In theory, every team wants either James or Durant. In practice, how many aspiring candidates would trade half a decade of draft picks or gut their rosters for the right to pay them well over $40 million a year? Some, sure, but not all. And, if Durant’s current situation is any indication, maybe not as much as one might assume.

James has been a meticulous storyteller throughout his career, creating the electric era of the “Heatles”, the comforting return of Cleveland and the glitzy run of the Lakers. This upcoming season will feature his pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time record, but even that hallmark achievement won’t bring him closer to his ultimate measuring stick: Michael Jordan’s six rings.

Perhaps James accepted that, opting to make the most of his late career partnership with the Lakers, à la Kobe Bryant. Or maybe he’ll try his luck shaking up the chessboard next summer, envisioning a more fulfilling final chapter elsewhere. Either way, it’s striking that an icon whose power plays have long shaped the NBA is now struggling to have it all.

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