Lakers Need to Figure out Their LeBron James Problem Sooner Than You Think

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James stands on the court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

All-Star Weekend in Cleveland gave Los Angeles Lakers fans a break from watching their 27-31 team struggle through a challenging season. That respite was interrupted with three notable items on the potential future of LeBron James.

In an interview with Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, James acknowledged he could return to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time. "The door's not closed on that," James said. "I'm not saying I'm coming back and playing. I don't know. I don't know what my future holds. I don't even know when I'm free."

James also told gathered media that his future will dovetail with his son's potential NBA career. Wherever Bronny James lands, "that's where I'll be."

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

LeBron's going wherever Bronny goes 🤝 (via @ByJasonLloyd) https://t.co/lFEGnLxJxN

And for good measure, James went out of his way to praise Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti as "the MVP over there," noting how well the team has drafted, dating back to Kevin Durant when the team was still in Seattle as the SuperSonics.

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LeBron says Sam Presti is the real MVP in OKC. 👀 https://t.co/GRZzLWhdl8

So what's going on? Nothing to see here? Is James just sharing his thoughts on some random topics? Or do Lakers fans have something serious to worry about?

In short, they do. The marriage between the Lakers and James is in a precarious spot. The relationship between Klutch Sports, led by James' agent Rich Paul, and the franchise is at its lowest point.

Decisions made in July, August and ahead of the February 10 trade deadline have led to a dysfunctional situation. And it’s becoming increasingly clear the Lakers need to come to terms early with James—August 4, specifically—or part ways. 

That's when James is eligible for a two-year extension that could max out at $97.1 million through the 2024-25 season.

If he doesn't extend, James will hit free agency in 2023. The Cavaliers might be able to get to $36.4 million in cap space in an early projection, roughly $10 million short of what the Lakers can pay James. A move or two (trading Lauri Markkanen) could bridge that gap, with a potential starting lineup of All-Stars Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and James, plus young talents Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro.

Bronny James will be draft-eligible ahead of the 2024-25 season. James, the father, may prefer a one-year extension with the Lakers or a one-season contract with the Cavaliers to time free agency with his son's rookie year.

It's also worth noting that either the NBA or National Basketball Players Association can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement by December 15, ending the deal after the 2022-23 season instead of 2023-24. But even if the one-and-done rule is discarded, it may not be in time for Bronny James to join the 2023 draft class (though it's not entirely out of the question).

Having polled several executives, Bronny James probably projects to be a second-round pick at this point, though it's too early to say with any certainty. A team could reach for the son to lure the father.

Notably, Los Angeles will only keep its first-round pick in 2024 if the New Orleans Pelicans choose to delay the Lakers' obligation to 2025, as part of the blockbuster deal that brought in Anthony Davis. The Lakers don't have their own second-rounder (owed to the Memphis Grizzlies) but do have one from the Washington Wizards in the Russell Westbrook trade (the lower selection between the Wizards and Grizzlies).

Drafting Bronny James could solve some of the issues between the Lakers and his father. But 2024 is a long way off, and the Lakers need to have a clear decision on James well before then. 

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

In the context of the Lakers' drama this season, James' praise of Presti could be seen as a passive-aggressive swipe at Lakers Vice President of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka.

According to multiple NBA sources, Klutch is not happy with Pelinka. The sentiment has long percolated, but it reached a boil when Pelinka refused to trade Westbrook and a future first-round pick (likely 2027) for Houston Rockets guard and Klutch client John Wall.

The move didn't make sense for the Lakers from a basketball standpoint as a significant upgrade over Westbrook, even though Wall averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists per game last year. Wall hasn't played this season, with the Rockets focusing on developing younger players. From the Klutch point of view, the Lakers would get their client out of a bad situation in Houston and undo the Westbrook mistake.

Last summer, James met with Westbrook, agreeing that a team-up would work in Los Angeles, per a source privy to the details of the meeting. Pelinka was close to acquiring Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings but pivoted to Westbrook at the last moment ahead of the 2021 NBA draft.

A strong executive will make the right choice for the franchise, even if that means rebuffing the pressure from the team's biggest star. The blame doesn't fall on James' broad shoulders but on the front office that agreed with him that it was the move to make. The results have not been fruitful, though the team has yet to field a healthy roster this season (then again, if a team puts 77.7 percent of its payroll into three players, depth to overcome injury is going to be in short supply).

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Would Wall have made a difference? Maybe not on the floor, but it would have for Klutch. Instead, the Lakers are wasting one of the few precious years left in 37-year-old James' career (from a certain point of view). He's already begun to slow in Los Angeles, with groin and ankle injuries that have cost him serious time over the past few seasons.

On the court, he's still a powerhouse. The Lakers need to decide how long they should stay in the LeBron James industry. Should the Lakers pay James into his 40s?

Los Angeles has kept its books clean for the 2023 offseason. If Talen Horton-Tucker opts out of his contract ahead of 2023-24, the Lakers will only have Davis under contract and possibly $72 million in cap space. Should James return, that drops to about $26 million, well below max space for any top free agent.

With James' extension looming, the Lakers aren't going to be able to play both sides for much longer. The team's books won't look very different this summer should Westbrook opt into his final year at $47.1 million. Keeping standout acquisition Malik Monk may also prove problematic, as the most the Lakers should be able to offer will be the taxpayer mid-level exception at roughly $6.3 million.

The good news is that most teams will not have cap space in July. But that may not matter. If the handful that might (Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Thunder) choose not to pursue Monk, any team with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (~$10.3 million starting) would be able to offer more than the Lakers.

John Hefti/Associated Press

Even so, bringing back the same team can't be ideal given this season's performance. Will Monk (or a replacement with the tax mid-level) and a different assortment of minimum players yield a different result? The Lakers don't even have a draft pick in June, with the Pelicans or Grizzlies getting the first-rounder and the Spurs the second.

Westbrook's massive expiring contract could make him a viable trade asset. Perhaps a team might value what he brings on the court on a short-term contract. More reasonably, the Lakers may need to find a franchise looking to dump long-term salary.

Are the Indiana Pacers going to turn over more of their veteran roster? Players like Malcolm Brogdon and Hield have large, multiyear deals that may not fit the Pacers' restructuring. Westbrook, along with at least a first-round pick (possibly a pair in 2027 and 2029), might be attractive. Indiana could keep Westbrook for the season or buy him out to develop younger guards like Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte. That's the kind of move the Lakers might need to pursue if James commits to staying.

Or perhaps the New York Knicks will look to make changes after a difficult year. The Lakers could help the Knicks get out of contracts like Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, Nerlens Noel or even Julius Randle. The Philadelphia 76ers shopped Tobias Harris' large contract in a trade before landing James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets. Will the Sixers try again to shed that money this summer?

And that Wall swap will certainly be available in the offseason if the Lakers decide to get back in bed with Klutch. That's the crux of the issue. Do the Lakers reinvest in James, in which case trading Westbrook may be necessary, even if the returning contracts are ugly long-term?

If not, the Lakers will look to protect their future picks and cap space in 2023. If James doesn't sign an extension, the team may need to consider trading him for value instead of letting him walk without any compensation in return.

Klutch represents Davis, who can exit his contract as early as the 2024 offseason. Maybe the Lakers would start entirely from scratch and trade both stars. What could James and Davis bring back to the Lakers if available? That's too much meat for one article to explore.

If the answer is blowing it up, the Lakers do have the 2023 first-round pick (although the Pelicans can swap if L.A. bottoms out).

Whatever the answer, the team needs to have clarity ahead of the draft in June and free agency in July. By the time James has to put ink to paper in August, the bulk of the offseason moves will be complete.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.