LeBron James is 33 years old and, while many might think he is some mixture of a cyborg and basketball god, his career — and, by extension, his prime — is a finite entity.
The idea of potentially “punting” a season while the Lakers could only have him for as few as three years is hard to wrap one’s head around, but according to Zach Lowe of ESPN, that’s exactly what he is willing to do next season (kind of):
But LeBron is a Laker, and he is not pressuring L.A. to acquire a second star now, per sources familiar with his thinking. His decision to come alone for three guaranteed seasons speaks for itself. He knows Ingram has at least borderline All-Star potential, and that the 2019 free-agency class is loaded beyond Leonard. He has faith in the combined powers of his supernova talent and the Lakers brand.
His patience will have limits. But reading between the lines, the Lakers probably have the next calendar year before LeBron applies urgent pressure.
This means that James’ thinking hasn’t changed since he joined the Lakers, because his camp reportedly also got word to the team that they didn’t need to trade for Leonard to get him to commit.
If James was on a shorter-term contract, the Lakers would have incentive to make a deal for Leonard, even it it meant giving up more than they might feel comfortable doing. But because James agreed to a four-year contract (with an option after the third season), the Lakers aren’t pressured into overpaying and thus hold even more leverage over the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s also worth taking a look at whether the Lakers are really punting next year as currently constituted. In short, kind of, but this can’t be how they’ll head into next season.
Brook Lopez is still out there as a free agent and would round out a starting five of him, James, Brandon Ingram (if he isn’t traded), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and either Rajon Rondo or Lonzo Ball, depending on who wins the positional battle in the preseason, with whoever loses said battle, JaVale McGee, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart being the main pieces off the bench.
I will not include Lance Stephenson in that rotation because, well, I’m trying to speak his being left out of it into existence.
Is that team a title contender? Probably not. But if the young guys take steps forward and the role players live up to expectations, that’s a playoff team at the absolute least. It’s somewhere in-between punting and competing while also maintaining flexibility for next season.
Short-term, win-now moves might make the Lakers better now, but that’s kind of also how some of the bloated contracts James left in Cleveland happened. The Lakers are trying to avoid that.
We’ll see if all this actually works, but it’s at least good to see the Lakers have some kind of plan, enabled by James’ trust in the organization.