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On the all-star stage, LeBron James flirts with a post-Lakers future

LeBron James and the Lakers are in the middle of a disappointing season that may have the four-time MVP looking for a different team to finish his career with. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

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CLEVELAND — The NBA gathered for All-Star Weekend at an in-between moment: The omicron wave had passed, but the threat of future variants and Kyrie Irving’s endless vaccine mandate saga still loomed. Adam Silver, who went maskless for most of the festivities, couched his optimism with layers of hedging.

“Hopefully,” the commissioner said, “this is the beginning or the middle of the end of the worst of the pandemic.”

LeBron James, the star of stars in Cleveland, found himself stuck in a similar purgatory, hinting Saturday that he is in the beginning or the middle of the end of his Los Angeles Lakers tenure.

The four-time MVP has long displayed a keen and cutthroat sense of when to seek greener pastures. He left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 convinced that they had plateaued. He ditched the Miami Heat in 2014 when health, age, depth and salary concerns piled up. He moved on from Cleveland again in 2018 after his partnership with Irving dissolved.

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That history is instructive because James is suddenly embroiled in perhaps the bleakest chapter of his career. The 2009-10 Cavaliers won 61 games and a playoff series. The 2013-14 Heat won 54 games and reached the Finals. The 2017-18 Cavaliers won 50 games and reached the Finals.

By comparison, the Lakers (27-31) are in ninth place in the Western Conference. James’s co-star, Anthony Davis, is sidelined again with a significant foot injury that will keep him out for at least a month. James’s third wheel, Russell Westbrook, has been a disastrous fit and a major impediment to the Lakers’ cap flexibility and trade options. The rest of James’s supporting cast isn’t up to the task of a long playoff run, and reinforcements didn’t arrive at the trade deadline.

If the next two months go well, the Lakers, who entered the season as Western Conference favorites, will be lucky to win a playoff series. If they don’t, the Lakers could easily find themselves out of the postseason for the second time in James’s four seasons.

With all eyes and ears on James in Cleveland, he candidly acknowledged that this season has been “a hell storm” and the “strangest” of his 19-year career. He also went out of his way to praise Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, comments that some observers perceived as a slight to Lakers GM Rob Pelinka. Then, in an interview with the Athletic, James said that “the door’s not closed” on a possible return to Cleveland. The 37-year-old added that he plans to play on the same team as his oldest son, Bronny, a high school junior who is on track to be draft eligible in 2024.

Taken together, James’s comments felt like the NBA equivalent of reactivating his Tinder account and updating his profile photo. He hasn’t quit on the Lakers, whom he led to a comeback victory over the Utah Jazz in the aftermath of Davis’s foot injury last week. But talking about his future so openly does suggest that he sees the writing on the wall. Just as his go-for-broke approach to roster building left the Heat in 2014 and the Cavaliers in 2018 with limited options for improvement, James is stuck needing a miracle to reverse his fading 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 will not return a star. The Lakers don’t have many quality draft assets or young prospects to cash in for veteran talent. And while James’s statistical production remains strong, his presence no longer guarantees that his team will be among the top title contenders as it did earlier in his career.

If James is indeed plotting his next move, he can do so with a clear conscience and without fear of 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 following Kobe Bryant’s 2016 retirement. He helped bring Davis to town and steered the Lakers through Bryant’s tragic death. He didn’t oversee a new dynasty, but he has played spectacularly and aged gracefully. In short, James came, he made “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and he conquered.

The “when” and “where” of what comes next remain to be seen. James is under contract through the 2022-23 season, meaning he could 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 East’s fourth seed, is especially intriguing given how well their young pieces would complement James. Darius Garland, a first-time all-star, could serve as a secondary ballhandler and scorer a la Irving. Evan Mobley, the 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 handle players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. James has 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 is very deserving of this platform and this moment,” James said Saturday. “They have two all-stars of their own in the game in [Garland] and the big fella, Jarrett Allen. And they got another guy in the All-Star Game, and that’s me.”

Few would begrudge James a full-circle return to the franchise that drafted him, especially if the move back to his home state facilitated his dream of playing with Bronny. To make a trade work this summer, Cleveland could use Kevin Love’s expiring contract to help match salaries. The biggest hang-up could be whether the Cavaliers can convince the Lakers to accept a pick-laden return package similar to the one the Brooklyn Nets sent to the Houston Rockets last year for James Harden.

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For James and Cleveland, a third act would only make sense if it opens a championship window and doesn’t gut the Cavaliers’ well-balanced core. For the Lakers, this summer will bring tough choices: Do they try to sign James to a contract extension, retool around him for one final run before 2023 free agency, or trade him in an effort to replenish their asset base 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 “hell storms” — to borrow James’s phrase — when he approached free agency, and the scrutiny would be magnified exponentially in Los Angeles. While the Lakers typically love attention, they have just endured two exhausting and disappointing seasons. Do they have the stomach and stamina for a third?

Now that James is dropping breadcrumbs and musing in public, the Lakers will soon need to decide whether this mutually beneficial partnership has run its course.