This Time, The Decision’s Not Just Lebron’s

Do your happy dance, Michael Jordan lovers.  The Lakers’ season is over and, once again, Lebron James is stuck on a mere four rings, making MJ’s six all the more insurmountable as he now prepares for the longer than desired run up to his age 40 season.  For the second straight season, they were little match for the Denver Nuggets, and in particular Jamal Murray, who buried a game-winning jumpshot for the second time in five games and dismissed James and company two rounds earlier than they did last year.

The Lakers’ inability to reach their promised land yet again apart from an atypical socially distanced tournament held in a near-empty Orlando gymnasium is no fault of James, who defied Father Time and logic to remain mostly healthy and productive.  He was able to will them into another banner, albeit the asterisk of the NBA In-Season Tournament, which in hindsight proved to be the high watermark of their season.  A fact that has stoked the flames of “now, what?”.  With an option for future service now on the table, once more, the words Lebron and Decision are intertwined.  And such discussion certainly was given a jolt of lighter fluid when his response to the question “Was Game 5 the last game you played as a Laker?” during the post-mortem press conference was a smiling but firm “I’m not gonna answer that, thank you”.

To be sure, the odds of a reunion are far better than they were two months ago, as THE ATHLETIC’s impressive troika of Shams CharaniaJovan Buha and Sam Amick wrote late last night:

It bodes well for the Lakers that the relationship with James has stabilized in recent months. That didn’t appear to be the case in late January, when the Lakers fell below .500 with a loss to Atlanta and James’ hourglass tweet sparked so much speculation about his frustrations. Then, there were the series of pro-New York Knicks signals he sent out just days later during the team’s East Coast trip, all reminders that the leverage was his come summertime.

But when James chose not to engage with the Warriors at the trade deadline in February, with Golden State owner Joe Lacob known to have opened that door during a trade discussion that ESPN first reported, the Lakers saw it as a sign that he truly valued being part of the Lakers organization.

And the feeling appears to be more than mutual, as THE ATHLETIC’s lengthy piece continued:

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, in particular, believes James’ return is of paramount importance to their plan. This franchise has always been buoyed by the stars, and James’ ability to still play at an elite level at his advanced age has only strengthened the desire to have him retire in a purple-and-gold jersey one day. And after six seasons together in which there has been no shortage of ups and downs, Buss and James, team sources say, have a relationship that is better than ever these days.

The Lakers, team sources say, would be open to discussing any deal that involves James coming back — including even the maximum three-year, $164 million extension they can offer. Playing through a three-year deal would put him at 42 by the end of the contract.

What’s more, team sources say the Lakers are very open to the prospect of helping LeBron fulfill his dream of playing with his son Bronny by potentially drafting him.

“My last year will be played with my son,” James famously told The Athletic in 2022.

But Bronny has already decided that he’s leaving Los Angeles for now, or at least the downtown campus of USC.   And it does seem like aside from the cash that Buss would need to pony up to keep Dad in tow, she’ll probably need to earmark something significant for someone who has yet to prove he can play consistently and effectively at the NCAA Division I level, in spite of his obviously stellar DNA.

Which means that much less to offer to address some other glaring needs, most notably a reliable and consistent supporting cast that can contribute what is needed to support Lebron and Anthony Davis, who also defied expectations by staying healthy and productive for the majority of 2023-24.  And truth be told, the free agency class isn’t all that appealing.  Sure, the likes of Devin Booker and Trae Young could be had, but they effectively would take away from what Lebron can do best.

Buss may have an even more pressing need than players, as THE ATHLETIC also pointed out:

The Lakers believed this roster was built for much more than a first-round defeat. Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka and his staff retained key free agents, such as Austin Reaves, Russell and Hachimura, extended Jarred Vanderbilt and believed the core had promise to make a title run around Davis and James. Throughout the series and most of the season, however, team officials and players believe (coach Darvin) Ham’s fluctuating rotations, game plans and lack of adjustments led to an underperforming group. It created discontent within the locker room, which became palpable across the franchise.

The question is–who is out there who is capable of earning James’ respect, let alone the buy-in of the balance of the roster and the organization, who can do a better job with two blue-chip talents and a bunch of spare parts?  Might it come down to Lebron himself?

And at the same time, if you’re a Laker fan, if you’ve thrilled to even the asterisked title and the breaking of the 40,000 point barrier, are you as fully committed to a few more years of running this all back knowing the odds of repeating the magnitude of those events are diminishing with every passing day?

Lebron’s decision, as it has been since he first took his talents to South Beach, will be the topic of the off-season even as the rest of the playoffs unfold without him.  Even as a new generation of stars, devoid of the distractions of veterans like James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant not being in a second round for the first time since 2005, vie for attention and zeitgeist.

But his fate, and the others’ outlined above, are intertwined.  And they’ve got huge some decisions of their own to make.

Consider yourselves on the clock.

Courage…

 

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