Between his taking his talents to South Beach, the decision to head back to Cleveland and now his time in Tinseltown, LeBron James has done a fair bit of moving around as the NBA’s biggest superstar over the past decade and a half or so.
Whether the 37-year-old will be on the move again this summer, despite having another year left on his contract beyond this one, remains to be seen. But the basketball world certainly grew curious this past All-Star weekend, during which LeBron made a point of not closing the door on a return to Cleveland.
It was one of a handful of things James said that raised eyebrows; it is noteworthy timing in light of the fact that the Lakers—just 27–31 and in ninth place out West—had just stood pat at the trade deadline. A deadline that James wanted, if not expected, to see his front office make some meaningful changes to the roster, according to a report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
This isn’t to suggest James is certain to head for the exits, necessarily. Windhorst said the superstar more than likely still wants to be in Los Angeles, where he won the title in 2020 alongside running mate Anthony Davis. But the recent comments from James could be a transparent effort to force Lakers executive Rob Pelinka into making considerable roster moves come summertime, particularly with James being a free agent the following year.
The postmortem of this year’s Lakers club was always going to be fascinating. Hell, the dissection of that subject now, before even picking up the season’s second half, is compelling. How could it not be? Los Angeles—the NBA’s glitziest franchise—went even more all-in than before by flipping its depth for a polarizing talent in Russell Westbrook, who's bent counting statistics to his will for years while often struggling to mesh on-court with other stars.
That swap, combined with Davis’s constant injury concerns (now out for the next four weeks), is sure to bring about questions about what all the Lakers can do in the coming months to meaningfully improve the roster without an abundance of assets. And if they can’t … do those realities effectively push an aging James out the door to a team with a clearer path to a ring?
Plenty will point the finger at owner Jeanie Buss and the organization’s lack of willingness to go deeper into the luxury tax to retain a key role player such as Alex Caruso, who fit James and the team like a glove and was due a payday. (Chicago, the team who ponied up for Caruso, ex-Laker Lonzo Ball and one-time Laker target DeMar DeRozan, has jumped from not making the postseason last year to being tied for first in the East so far this season.) Others will look squarely at Pelinka, who pushed all the right buttons while overseeing the title run two seasons ago, but reportedly frustrated James this past week by saying he had the star’s sign-off to not make changes to the league’s oldest roster at the deadline. (Per Windhorst, James didn’t send along such approval.)
And from what we know of James’s past—when he’s pushed to have star players join him—it’s only fair that he get a fair degree of criticism here as well. It’s been suggested that James and Davis more or less interviewed potential third stars this past offseason, before bypassing DeRozan and deciding on Westbrook as the player they wanted in purple-and-gold. It was a swing-for-the-fences trade that always looked risky with upside at best and disastrous at worst. Teams with spacing concerns such as the Lakers have would presumably benefit more from a No. 3 who serves as a threat from the perimeter, which Westbrook—who also doesn’t cut or do much when playing off the ball—has almost never been.
Still, even if you lay the blame at James’s feet—or even if this is it, and he says he wants out this summer—the bottom line is that he brought the organization a championship; just like he has with each of the other two clubs he’s played for. If nothing else comes of his tenure with the Lakers, that’s noteworthy for a club that had gone a franchise-record six consecutive years without reaching the playoffs. Dealing him away, even ahead of a contract year, would yield considerable assets despite his advancing age, as he’s still playing at an MVP level.
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Yet as we wrote recently about the Nets, we’re seeing what feels like more and more cautionary tales from teams that go all-in, not only by cashing in their young talent but also by handing the keys to their star players, who aren’t necessarily paid to be general managers.
We don’t know whether LeBron will be in Los Angeles next season. But barring a miraculous playoff run, it seems nearly certain that things will look differently a few months from now.
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