At the doorstep of a prestigious all-time record, the mood in LA is more frustrated than joyous. Let’s explore how the LA Lakers can right the ship and maximize King James’ career endgame.
You can debate all you want about who the greatest of all time is, but you can’t argue that LeBron James isn’t one of the most decorated ever to play the game. We’re talking about someone who’s won four titles, four Finals MVPs, four regular season MVPs, and 19 All-Star nods since first entering the national spotlight over two decades ago as a teenager.
The next honor on the list? Becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
The imminent, remarkable record has surely been a conversation, but not the conversation around LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers of late, however. The Purple and Gold finished below .500 one season ago, they’re on pace to do so again this year, and have only made it past the first round of the postseason once since LeBron arrived in town following his second stint in Cleveland. All this has led to loudening dialogue about his discontent, murky future, and a host of equally hypothetical and unrealistic trade deadline acquisitions that the Lake Show “needs” in order to compete.
Instead of focusing on gearing up to celebrate an all-time record, there’s a malaise in LA — look no further than King James’ reaction to the Lakers missing out on former Nets star Kyrie Irving, who was ultimately dealt to the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 5. First, LeBron tweeted this:
Then, he jumped into an exclusive interview with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon for a highly candid conversation.
“I can’t sit here and say I’m not disappointed on not being able to land such a talent,” James told Wilbon of the Kyrie deal that wasn’t. “Someone I had great chemistry with, I know I got great chemistry with on the floor, that can help you win championships in my mind, in my eyes — but my focus has shifted now. My focus has shifted back to where it should be and that’s this club now and what we have now.”
So, what do the Lakers have now? Let’s have a closer look:
- The team is No. 13 in the West as of this writing despite boasting the NBA’s seventh-highest active salary cap spending ($169.4 million)
- LeBron just signed a two-year extension worth $85.65 million
- LBJ is averaging 30 points per game — which would be a career high — along with 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists. As he put it to Wilbon: “I’m running past 21-year-olds, jumping higher than 23-year-olds. I’m just so much more sharper now at year 20 than I was at year 10, or even year 15.”
So, why can’t a team that chose to put itself on the hook for $32 million in luxury tax penalties in order to roster three future Hall of Famers in James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook figure this whole thing out?
With the NBA Trade Deadline looming on Feb. 9, it’s worth asking what Bron’s market value would be or could be going forward, as well as what his offseason might look if this sub-.500 team can’t right the ship and break into the postseason. For what it’s worth, the all-timer is scheduled for free agency in 2025, and he’s made it more than clear he wants to play with his son Bronny if and when the high schooler enters the league. (He’s eligible for the NBA Draft no sooner than 2024, but it’s far from guaranteed as to when he’ll make the jump.)
With that in mind, let’s examine the Lakers’ recent history, potential trade assets, and roster construction to get the best possible sense of where they currently stand as a franchise and what it all means in the context of their central superstar.
Help On The Way?
Probably not, hence why the whole Kyrie swing-and-miss stings as much as it does.
The Lakers were reportedly inked to Indiana’s Myles Turner and Buddy Hield earlier in the season, which is now out the window after Turner recently signed a two-year, $58 million extension in late January. They acquired young big man Rui Hachimura, but he isn’t moving the needle. And in hindsight, even though they won a chip in 2020 with Anthony Davis and LeBron in the NBA Bubble, they gave up Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, and three future first-round picks for Davis in 2019.
That would be an awfully nice core to build around James now, to say nothing of what they could have done with those picks.
Furthermore, the Lakers have neither rmoney nor draft capital to work with to retool:
- 2023: New Orleans (28-27) reserves the right to swap picks.
- 2024: NOLA has the rights to LA’s pick, but they can also wait a year and take the team’s 2025 pick instead
- 2025: Lakers may have their own first-rounder if NOLA doesn’t kick the 2024 into ’25. This is when LeBron is due to enter free agency.
As noted, the Lakers are over the league’s soft salary cap by roughly $60 million in 2022-23. Further:
- Russell Westbrook’s team-high $47 million salary comes off the books in 2023-24, but they’ll already have $91.8 million committed to James, Davis, Damian Jones, and Max Christie.
- In 2024-25, they’ll have $93.8 million on the books between James and Davis alone if both exercise the player options in their contracts.
“I’m a winner and I want to win,” James said. “And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion, that has always been my goal since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio. “And I know it takes steps to get there, but once you get there and know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore. So, we’ll see what happens and see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple years.”
A few scenarios to consider:
- Not likely: Demand a trade and become a 1.5-year rental
- Plausible: Ride out this subpar season and request a trade in the summer
- Plausible: Stick around and rust the front office to build a competitive team in 2023-24, reserving the right to opt out and enter free agency early after the season
- Not likely: Play it out in LA all the way through his 2024-25 player option and make a tough decision entering what would be his age-40 season
Not great, Bron!
It’s evident that LeBron works best with shooters and a capable ball-handler or two around him so he can play point, penetrate, and kick or let a 3-point threat stretch the floor while he makes moves off the ball. Unfortunatley, the league’s 3-point shooting average in 2022-23 is 36% and LA is currently 33.6% from deep (25th in the league).
They ranked in the bottom 10 in this category in the three years prior, too.
The Lakers currently have just two players shooting the league average from deep on a minimum of two attempts per game: Lonnie Walker IV and Austin Reaves. Compare that to how other GMs have built around LeBron during his four NBA championship seasons.
LeBron teammates to shoot at least 36% on 3s with at least three attempts per game:
- Miami Heat, 2011-12: Mike Miller, James Jones, Mario Chalmers
- Miami Heat, 2012-13: Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Rashard Lewis
- Cleveland Cavaliers, 2015-16: Dahntay Jones, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, James Jones, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Kevin Love
- Los Angeles Lakers, 2019-20: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley.
First of all, appreciate the individual greatness while it’s here — and be careful who you blame for this mess. Setting a COVID-disrupted championship season in 2019-20 aside, the LA front office has been an absolute atrocity during LeBron’s tenure out west. This is not say that LeBron is 100% innocent here, as we know he has a history of being hands-on, but if he was running the show in the front office, one would have to assume that these Lakers would have more long-range shooting at the very least.
Keep in mind that GM and VP of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka said at the team’s Media Day before this season that “We are committed to doing everything we can to put the best team around LeBron as long as it’s a smart trade….”
They’ve only managed to land Hachimura as of this writing, a young power forward averaging 11 points per game.
“Y’all know what the fuck should be happening,” James told The Athletic. “I don’t need to talk… I play the game. I can’t do nobody else’s job.”
That has us asking a question: Are there enough in the Lakers organization knows what should be happening?
With time still left ahead of the trade deadline, there’s time to prove it — but not all that much.
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