LeBron James is eligible to sign a contract extension with the Lakers on Thursday.
Just don’t hold your breath for that announcement.
James seems unlikely to sign an extension this week. Or next week. Or next week. Why; For starters, you don’t have to. Thursday is not a deadline. It’s the first day James can sign the extension. The last day? June 30. Which means James has roughly ten months to agree to a new two-year, $97.1 million extension. If he doesn’t, he’ll hit free agency … when he can sign a three-year deal with the Lakers—or any other NBA team—next summer.
Honestly, there is very little upside to an expansion. Financial security; James doesn’t need it. He is a billionaire, according to Forbes, the first—and only—active NBA player to reach that milestone. If James suffers a career-ending injury — and with modern medicine, those types of on-court injuries no longer exist — he won’t lose his Lakers income. Not to mention James’ desire to play with his oldest son, Brony, who under current rules will become eligible for the draft in 2024.
Besides—with free agency comes leverage. In Cleveland, James pioneered short-term contracts. By signing two-year deals — with the second player option, effective injury protection — James was able to exert maximum leverage. He was able to push it Cavaliers to spend, which they did. Say what you will about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, but when LeBron was on the roster, Cleveland spent whatever it took to build a winner around him.
The Lakers spend—LA had the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA last season, per Spotrac, paying more than $40 million in luxury tax—but not indiscriminately. The decision not to bring back Alex Caruso, who signed a four-year, $37 million contract with the Bulls last summer, was largely financial. Caruso likely wouldn’t have made the Lakers title contenders last season, not with Davis injured and Westbrook struggling to adjust, but his two-way game would have been valuable off the bench.
As a free agent, James, if only passively, can apply pressure. Spend or risk losing me. Lock up future draft picks or risk losing me. Build the roster with players I want to play with…or risk losing me.
So why sign an extension?
To avoid the distraction that comes with it not signing, perhaps.
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And to put an end to speculation about a third Cleveland tour once and for all.
Let’s start with the Lakers. There is a new coach. There is a renewed roster. There is a superstar (Anthony Davis) hoping to bounce back from an injury-plagued season and another (Russell Westbrook) who may not want to be there at all. There are many potential storms in Los Angeles. The Lakers don’t need another one.
This could be James without an extension. Whether it was in Cleveland, Miami, or Cleveland (again), LeBron’s contract years have been… interesting. Publicly, James will try to shut down speculation about his future. But that will do little to stop it. Each three-game losing streak will raise a new wave of questions. Every word out of his mouth will be scrutinized for signs of displeasure. If LA struggles early, SHOULD THE LAKERS TRADE LEBRON will be a regular chyron on morning debate shows.
Then there’s Cleveland. The Cavaliers have a good team. They have a rising All-Star in there Darius Garland. They have a potential superstar in Evan Mobley. They have a young supporting cast that includes Jarrett AllenIsaac Okoro and (probably) Colin Sexton. On paper, the Cavs are far from title contenders. And next summer they will have the space to make a run at one o’clock.
It’s not 2014. The pull to return to Northeast Ohio won’t be as strong. James delivered a championship to Cleveland. He delivered on the promises he made when the Cavs drafted him first overall in 2003. Besides, James is really enjoying Los Angeles. His children are enrolled in local schools. He clearly loves the Southern California lifestyle and the business opportunities that come with it.
But James wants to win. What if the Lakers can’t trade Westbrook? Or if Davis, who has played 76 games over the last two seasons, struggles to stay healthy this season? Laugh at the (yet) return to Cleveland, but James, who will turn 38 in December, isn’t spending the twilight of his career with a team that doesn’t give him a legitimate chance to win a championship.
A lot can change in the coming months. The Lakers could set up a Westbrook-Kyrie Irving trade, reuniting James with his former teammate. The young, more athletic roster LA has assembled around James could improve a defense that finished in the bottom third of the NBA last season. Davis could regain his All NBA form. The Lakers don’t look like title contenders right now. But with good health and a little maneuvering, they could be.
If that happens, James won’t be leaving Los Angeles. #LoveLA was the hashtag James used on Wednesday in a tweet honoring the late Vin Scully. And it does. But a Cleveland reunion once seemed laughable when James was winning championships in Miami. With the Lakers on a roll, another one can’t be turned down.
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