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The Lakers’ mess complicates LeBron James’s extension decision

LeBron James has to decide if he wants to sign an extension with the Lakers or possibly head to free agency next summer. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

For all the ink spilled about Kevin Durant’s trade request and the challenges ahead for the Brooklyn Nets, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have had it worse. There’s no honor in comparing catastrophes, but it’s a useful exercise given that James will soon face his latest “Decision”: whether 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 presented unresolvable problems, but Westbrook possesses the more onerous contract and therefore has less trade value.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a more talented roster and better young players — no trivial matter given that James, 37, and Durant, 33, are in the win-now phase of their careers. Despite the chaos surrounding their centerpieces, the Nets managed to add two players, Royce O’Neale and T.J. Warren, who are more likely to aid a 2023 playoff push than any of the Lakers’ budget-friendly newcomers.

Given that side-by-side appraisal, it’s amusing that Durant sought to hit the eject button while James has been conspicuous in his absence from headline-making drama. Besides his annual jaunt to the Las Vegas Summer League, a well-received cameo at the Drew League and some backlash to 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 Aug. 4 but has yet to hint at his intentions.

In stare-down with the Nets, Kevin Durant bears the heaviest burden

Perhaps James’s relative silence can be explained by a lack of anything nice to say. Since sidestepping questions about the extension during his April exit interview, James watched Stephen Curry, a chief rival, win a fourth title, then endured a month of unconsummated rumors involving an Irving-for-Westbrook swap. As the Lakers continue to scour the league for a Westbrook deal and pin their fading hopes on a bounce-back campaign from Anthony Davis, the crosstown Clippers are preparing to reenter the title conversation with a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. These are trying times for James, who has insisted that winning drives 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 because there wasn’t much to think about. The Lakers had won the title in the bubble, James had been named Finals MVP, and Davis had looked ascendant in his first season in Los Angeles. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was headed for theaters, and James’s dream of playing in the NBA with his teenage son, Bronny, was still several years away.

Much has changed in the two seasons since as James has battled nagging injuries, seen his supporting cast turn over and flirted with a possible return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should he choose to ink a new deal with the Lakers that would run through the 2024-25 season, it would be a matter of financial and familial comfort. Los Angeles is an unmatched base for his off-court investments in media and entertainment, and it could remain home until after Bronny, a rising high school senior, becomes eligible for the 2024 draft.

On the court, staying put would be far less desirable. Even if the Lakers landed Irving, they would still trail the West’s top contenders by a considerable margin in depth and cohesion. Alternatively, if Westbrook stays, the Lakers would be looking at the prospect of another lost season given his poor fit with James and Davis. In that scenario, Westbrook’s contract would come off the books next summer, but the resulting cap space almost certainly wouldn’t be sufficient to address all of the Lakers’ roster holes.

Proceeding without a contract extension would have its own complications. Most obviously, James’s 2023 free agency would draw wall-to-wall media coverage, with every twist and turn of the Lakers’ season being analyzed for its impact on his future. That dynamic could prove exhausting and distracting for an overhauled roster guided by a first-time head coach, Darvin Ham.

Consider also the lessons from this summer, when five notable stars have faced obstacles and made concessions. Durant remains in limbo nearly a month after making his trade request; no suitors have emerged with fantastic offers to blow away Brooklyn. Irving, for his part, drew little interest when he sought sign-and-trades in June and had to settle for picking up his player option.

James Harden was forced to choose between a maximum salary and maximizing his title chances, and he wound up taking a $15 million pay cut to remain 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, parted with agent Thad Foucher, who issued 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 displeased by trade requests from NBA star players

Those situations have made it clear that teams won’t move heaven and earth to appease the sport’s biggest names forever. While the NBA’s player empowerment era continues at breakneck speed, even A-listers must reckon with their diminishing influence once they age and their contracts balloon.

In theory, every team wants James or Durant. In practice, how many aspiring contenders would be willing to trade away a half-decade of draft picks or gut their rosters for the right to pay them well over $40 million annually? Some, surely, but not all. And, if Durant’s current plight is any indication, maybe not as many as you might assume.

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

Maybe James has come to terms with that, opting to make the best of his late-career partnership with the Lakers, a la Kobe Bryant. Or maybe he will take his chances by shaking up the chessboard next summer, eyeing a more fulfilling final chapter somewhere else. Either way, it’s striking that an icon whose power plays have long shaped the NBA is struggling to have it all.

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