LeBron James signs extension with Los Angeles Lakers — What the massive deal means for both sides

LeBron James signs extension with Los Angeles Lakers — What the massive deal means for both sides post thumbnail image

What does LeBron James‘ two-year, $97.1 million extension with the Los Angeles Lakers, as reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, mean for both sides’ futures?

Forestalling speculation about the possibility of him becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer, LeBron agreed to the extension less than two weeks after becoming eligible because enough time has passed since his last extension with the Lakers, which was set to expire after this season.

Although a player option for the 2024-25 season still allows James to head elsewhere in time to play with his oldest son Bronny when he becomes eligible for the draft in 2024, the extension gives the Lakers more certainty about how long LeBron will be part of their future.

In turn, that could impact how the Lakers approach the final season of Russell Westbrook‘s contract and a choice between using his $47 million expiring salary in a trade before the February deadline or allowing it to expire, potentially creating cap space next summer.

Let’s break down the implications of LeBron’s extension and what comes next for him and the Lakers.

Lakers on LeBron’s timeline?

The most interesting aspect of James’ new contract is just what parameters he and the team discussed in a meeting on Aug. 4 that agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin was “productive” but did not immediately result in an extension the first day LeBron was eligible.

Given LeBron was always going to merit the maximum possible starting salary — that will be determined by the salary cap but cannot come in lower than $46.7 million — it seems likely those conversations were more about the direction the Lakers will take as a franchise.

In the wake of the Lakers standing pat at the 2022 trade deadline despite a below-.500 record, James seemed to indicate his frustration on social media. He tweeted the following week that Les Snead, the GM of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams famed for his willingness to include first-round picks in trades for veteran stars, was “My type of guy.”

McMenamin also reported on ESPN’s NBA Today at the time that LeBron and co-star Anthony Davis did not give Lakers GM Rob Pelinka approval for the deadline non-moves, as Pelinka had said afterward.

Now, the Lakers face similar decisions about whether to include the two first-round picks they can trade (one in 2027, which was available at the deadline, and now 2029) in deals to upgrade the roster in the short term. For the 37-year-old James, who’s unlikely to still be active by the time those picks are made, that timetable makes more sense than it might for the Lakers.

If the Lakers are able to move Westbrook for Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who won a championship alongside LeBron with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, all sides might agree about the plan.

If not, we could find out from the Lakers’ aggressiveness between now and the trade deadline, just what they told James before he agreed to extend.

When will cap space become an option in L.A.?

Before LeBron’s extension, the Lakers had just four players under contract for 2023-24: Davis, second-round pick Max Christie and player options for both Damian Jones ($2.6 million) and Talen Horton-Tucker ($11.0 million).

Had James been unwilling to commit to staying with the Lakers, that would have opened up the possibility of nearly $70 million in cap space next summer to replace him. LeBron’s extension swallows up a big part of that room, but the Lakers will still have some flexibility if they end up retaining Westbrook through the end of his contract.

In that scenario, if Horton-Tucker were to decline his player option and the Lakers renounced all their free agents, they’d have about $34 million in space based on the current 2023-24 cap projection of $133 million. That wouldn’t be enough to make a max offer to a player with more than six years of experience, but it would allow the Lakers to reset their roster by dividing it among multiple contributors — similar to what they did the summer before winning the 2020 NBA title.

That alternative scenario is one the Lakers must keep in mind as they pursue Westbrook trades. Making a move now would improve the Lakers’ chances of contending this season but would likely again limit them to using the midlevel exception in free agency next summer. That has forced the Lakers to rely heavily on players making the minimum salary since dealing multiple contributors for Westbrook.

The Lakers’ 2022-23 roster will feature just six players making more than the minimum: Davis, James, Westbrook, Horton-Tucker and midlevel signings Kendrick Nunn and Lonnie Walker IV.

Will LeBron make one final team change?

When the Lakers begin the 2022-23 season, already James will have played longer for them than any stint with a franchise since he began his career by playing seven seasons for Cleveland. LeBron’s time with the Miami Heat yielded not one, not two, not three but four years, the same period he spent with the Cavaliers in his second go-round.

Part of the reason James has hopscotched from team to team more than most all-time greats is the way those teams have tended to deplete their resources in pursuit of championships. Essentially, LeBron has been his own version of the success cycle, taking teams that have stockpiled cap space and draft picks and quickly converting those into aging veterans who can help him win immediately.

By committing to a sixth season with the Lakers, James has already changed direction from that thinking. From the cold, logical perspective of pursuing as many championships as possible, LeBron would have been better off ditching L.A. after this season and finding a new team. As James’ career winds down, the appeal of living in Los Angeles appears to have become the key factor in his decision-making.

It’s also worth mentioning the Bronny element, if only because LeBron himself has done so. During All-Star Weekend in Cleveland in February, James told The Athletic, “My last year will be played with my son. Wherever Bronny is at, that’s where I’ll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It’s not about the money at that point.”

That presumes a lot of things, most notably that James will continue playing beyond this extension and that Bronny will be good enough to make the NBA as quickly as possible. Those outcomes become more realistic with each passing year, however, and the timing of LeBron’s deal at least allows him the option of heading elsewhere to join Bronny in 2024.

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