Lakers Rumors: Can LAL Win NBA Title with LeBron James If They Won't Trade Him?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) stands on the court during an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Los Angeles, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

LeBron James just finished his fourth season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

So far, his Hollywood story has included one NBA title, one first-round exit and two campaigns that weren't punctuated by a playoff trip.

With his 37th birthday behind him, it's possible L.A.'s recent lack of success—championship run aside—could have him considering other options. He has expressed a desire to one day team with his son, Bronny, and he surely knows his ring count remains two shy of Michael Jordan's (four to six).

That's all relevant to the Lakers, because if James doesn't ink an extension this summer, his contract will expire after the 2022-23 campaign. One might assume that if an extension doesn't happen, it's in the club's best interest to explore trade avenues this summer (avoiding the risk of him leaving for nothing the next), but that reportedly isn't part of the Purple and Gold's plans.

"From [governor Jeanie] Buss on down, it appears the Lakers won't be demanding any sort of long-term commitment from James as some sort of protection against being traded," The Athletic's Sam Amick.

Even in the often cold, business world of basketball, that's a sensible stance.

James is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—players this league has ever seen. While the Lakers could fetch a king's ransom in a LeBron-led blockbuster, they'd be losing the King himself.

Keeping him on the roster is the easy part, though. Turning said roster into a title contender is the challenge.

While the Lakers can chalk some of their recent struggles up to injury issues, those issues aren't guaranteed to go away. They have played 154 games over this season and last. James played 101 of them. His All-Star sidekick, Anthony Davis, appeared in only 76.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Promise L.A. a clean bill of health for both next season, and this club could be right back in the championship hunt. However, the gulf between the talents of their top shelf and the rest of the roster's is cavernous.

First, the Lakers need to tackle their Russell Westbrook problem. They put a ton of eggs in the Brodie basket last summer and saw zero returns on that investment. Westbrook played one of his least efficient seasons to date, making his $47.1 million player option (per Spotrac) all the more onerous.

A summer split—by way of trade or even a waive-and-stretch—still seems the likeliest end to this story, it isn't necessarily a formality. When the Lakers opted to fire coach Frank Vogel, one of the issues they cited was "his handling of Westbrook and the inability to find a way to make him a more productive part of the program," per Amick.

Could the next Lakers coach find a better niche for Westbrook? Possibly, but it's one that involves a role unlike the one he has filled so far across his decorated, 14-year career. There is a scenario in which Westbrook finds new life as a ball-screener and slasher, but that's a big change from the ball-dominant style he is accustomed to. Selling this vision won't be easy, so the next skipper would need a good amount of gravitas to get it done.

Is that coach available right now? If they are, would they be interested in this opening given the turbulence this team has encountered in recent seasons? Stay tuned.

If the Lakers can somehow find a useful—or at least non-hurtful role—for Westbrook, that opens up the possibilities of making the upgrades this roster needs. Keeping him around means not having to sacrifice the assets needed to incentivize someone else to take on that salary and instead using those assets (a pair of future first-round picks, perhaps Talen Horton-Tucker for the right suitor) to snag win-now talent.

Could L.A. offer enough to pry Jerami Grant away from the Detroit Pistons? He would go a long way toward filling some of the club's defensive gaps on the perimeter, and he offers the shooting and shot-creation needed to serve as the squad's No. 3 option.

Buddy Hield is the kind of sharpshooter who can thrive alongside James. Cam Reddish has three-and-D upside that New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't seem interested in exploring. Malcolm Brogdon's injury issues may offer a buy-low opportunity for an experienced combo guard who can fill multiple roles at either end.

The Lakers should see some value on the trade market—more of it if Westbrook's contract doesn't saddle down their outgoing package. Snag the right player or two there, spend wisely in free agency (a new deal for Malik Monk?) and hire the correct coach to oversee it all, and sure, you could picture the LeBron-led Lakers emerging as a contender next season.

You just have to squint your eyes and throw on some optimism-tinted shades to see it.