Los Angeles Lakers' Blueprint for LeBron James' Final Seasons

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterOctober 29, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James reacts during the first half in Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Miami Heat Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LeBron James isn't slowing down any time soon.

This is both a blessing and a tremendous responsibility for the Los Angeles Lakers, who have James under contract for just one more guaranteed season but should be planning for his stay in L.A. to last at least a couple of years longer.

Set to turn 36 on Dec. 30, there's really no telling how many more seasons James can play. Still arguably the best player in the NBA, no one maintains their body better. His career seems destined to reach at least four or five more seasons, with playing beyond 40 years old a likely scenario.

While he can become a free agent by turning down a $41 million player option in 2021, look for James to stay a Laker for at least the next three seasons. If the NBA decides to do away with it's one-and-done rule, oldest son LeBron James Jr. will be eligible for the 2023 draft. Given James has spoken publicly about wanting to play with Bronny one day, it's unlikely he'd agree to a contract past the 2022-23 season, leaving the door open to sign with whichever team drafts his son.

This essentially puts the Lakers on a three-year plan.

Between free-agent targets, team needs and how James' game will likely evolve, the Lakers should be developing a blueprint for the next three seasons.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

                       

2020-21: James' 18th Season, Age 36

Heading into this offseason, the No. 1 priority is quite clear: re-sign Anthony Davis.

If Davis leaves, the Lakers' whole plan falls apart. There's not enough young talent left to trade for another star, and the best unrestricted free agent is probably Fred VanVleet. As good as James is, L.A. isn't a title contender unless Davis re-signs.

The good news? There's no reason for Davis to go anywhere else. The teams with the most cap space (Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks) all missed the playoffs this season, with some looking years away from being contenders.

Shams Charania reported for The Athletic that Davis will opt out of his $28.7 million player option but plans on re-signing with the Lakers on a to-be-determined deal.

While L.A. should want to sign him to a max five-year contract as soon as possible, Davis could make more money in the long term by signing one- or two-year deals. By waiting until he has 10 years of league service in 2022, Davis could sign for 35 percent of the salary cap instead of his current 30 percent, putting him in line for a five-year, $253.75 million deal (based on a $125 million salary cap).

Whatever the two sides agree on shouldn't matter much to James, as long as Davis returns.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Lakers' second goal of the offseason should be to find some more shooters.

Despite winning the title, L.A. ranked just 23rd in the league in three-point makes per game (11.0) and 21st in accuracy (34.9 percent). No regular member of the Lakers rotation shot better than 38.5 percent from three (not counting JaVale McGee's three makes on six total attempts), including James (34.8 percent) and Davis (33.0 percent).

While the Lakers won't have much (if any) cap space after a new deal for Davis, they should still be on the lookout for veteran shooters who would sign for a mid-level exception or vet minimum.

Players like Alec Burks, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Carmelo Anthony and Wesley Matthews should be near the top of the Lakers' free-agent wish list after securing Davis.

With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley all having player options, the Lakers should be interested in retaining all four for their defense, playmaking and experience alongside both James and Davis.

If the Lakers can run back a roster featuring their two superstars and a supporting cast full of improved shooters, they'll be in good position for a run at back-to-back titles.

                   

2021-22: James 19th Season, Age 37

The summer of 2021 will undoubtedly shake up the entire NBA.

James can opt out of his contract to become a free agent, as can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will be an unrestricted free agent, assuming he doesn't sign a max extension with the Milwaukee Bucks this offseason, with the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Rudy Gobert, Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo all hitting the open market as well.

Assuming Davis is under contract with the Lakers, there should be no reason for James to look elsewhere either.

No other Laker is under contract for the 2021-22 season, meaning L.A. could come close to having max cap space even with James and Davis on the roster. The team is trying to remove the $5 million owed to Luol Deng from a 2018 buyout agreement, per Charania, which could be the difference in signing one of the top free agents.

James could always opt out of his player option and agree to re-sign at a lesser rate to help open up cap space, something he did when joining the Miami Heat in 2010 in order for the team to sign Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem.

In 2017, the Lakers laid the groundwork to sign James by giving Caldwell-Pope a one-year, $17.7 million deal, allowing them to openly communicate with their shared agent, Rich Paul. Claiming Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers last offseason likely wasn't by mistake either, as Giannis' brother now has a shiny new trophy to show off as a subconscious recruiting tool. All three Antetokounmpo brothers in the NBA share the same agent, Alex Saratsis of Octagon.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Forming a Big Three of James, Davis and Antetokounmpo would be the ultimate goal, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of consolation prizes for Rob Pelinka to chase.

Splitting up the near-max money into a collection of role players worked pretty well last summer after a pursuit for Kawhi Leonard failed, and the Lakers may actually get some to take a discount given the team's continued chance at a title.

Holiday would be a perfect fit with his perimeter defense and playmaking, J.J. Redick will still be nailing threes at a 40 percent clip for years and Spencer Dinwiddie could help ease James out of the primary ball-handler role.

While 2020 is about getting Davis to re-sign, 2021 will be the Lakers' next, and possibly only, chance to add one more star next to James.

                 

2022-23: James 20th Season, Age 38

While James led the NBA in assists in his first season as a full-time point guard, at age 38 it may be time to start really reducing his workload.

The Lakers have to be more cognizant of how they use James both in terms of position and offensive system.

In 2019-20, James actually averaged more drives per game (14.1) than in any other of the seven years since the NBA started using tracking data. Even as a 28-year-old member of the Miami Heat in 2013-14, James put his head down and steamrolled into the paint just 9.4 times on average.

While James' minutes fell to a career-low this season (34.6), his usage was actually a tad higher (31.5 percent) than what he averaged over the past nine years (31.2). Moving ever closer to 40, the Lakers have to make sure James has to do less year after year, not more.

One 2022 free agent who could help James move off the ball more? Chris Paul.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

While Paul will be 37 by the time he becomes a free agent again, he, like James, isn't showing much decline in his play following an All-Star season.

Paul will also be coming off a year in which he'll have earned over $44 million and pushed his career earnings to $300 million, so getting him to join James on the Lakers for a minimum salary may be possible.

Stephen Curry will also be a free agent in 2022, but him leaving the Golden State Warriors to sign a cheap deal with the Lakers and LeBron seems like a pipe dream. Paul, Ricky Rubio and Patrick Beverley would all be far more realistic options at point guard.

By this time, James will have likely handed the offensive keys to Davis, who will be eligible to sign a max deal at 35 percent of the cap for the first time. If he's willing, we may see Davis playing center full-time by this point, allowing James to move to power forward and out of a constant ball-handling role. The four-time MVP has proven to be a far better three-point shooter off the catch (38.5 percent) than the pull-up (32.7 percent) as well.

The Lakers do still own their 2023 first-round pick, possibly in hopes of landing Bronny, although the New Orleans Pelicans have the right to swap positions thanks to the Davis trade.

With only three years left before James Jr. likely enters the draft (exactly 20 years after his father), the Lakers should maximize their time with James Sr. before he seeks to join his son elsewhere.