The NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) have tentatively agreed to start next season on Dec. 22, with training camps beginning on Dec. 1. But when things appeared to be heading that way initially, it didn’t always look like Lakers star LeBron James was going to be very happy about it.
First his teammate Danny Green joked that James wouldn’t show up for the first month of the season if it started that soon, and then word leaked that James was among a few star players who were opposed to beginning the 2020-21 season just two months after the Lakers won the 2020 title. James even joked on television with President Barack Obama that he’d be “cherry-picking the whole first half of the season” and letting Anthony Davis do all the work for the Lakers if next season started that soon.
However, while James’ jokes and these leaks have made it plain that he’s less than thrilled about the quick return to the court, Brian Windhorst of ESPN said on SportsCenter that James has at least come around to the necessity of getting back to basketball for the league as a whole (h/t Lakers Nation, emphasis mine):
“It’s good news and bad news. I guess we should all be celebrating as NBA fans that the players agreed to do it Christmas week. You see a lot of players out there on social media getting excited about it and celebrating it. But they only really half agreed to what the hope was they would agree to [Thursday]. They’re not going to agree to the financial arrangement just yet. That’s maybe not a big deal; maybe they go back into negotiations and finish that. But in talking to some people around the call, they were a little bit surprised.
“There was a group of star players on the call that kind of pushed back on this and didn’t think this was a good enough deal. LeBron James was not one of them. LeBron has moved his position on this, from what I am told. He is going to support the December 22nd start because he knows it’s important for NBA business. But there’s some guys who want to push a little bit more on financials.”
As Windhorst points out, the league and players’ union still have a few details left to iron out on this agreement, and the deadline (as of now) for them to do so is tonight, although they could always mutually agree to postpone doing so again, as they’ve done several times already.
James accepting this as a necessity for the rank-and-file players in the league to not lose a ton of money is good, because while it will still likely be necessary for the Lakers to load manage him a ton this year, him not being upset about this return being so soon will likely mean a bit less self-manufactured drama, and less noise is always good for a championship defense.
And James is set for life from a monetary perspective regardless. He could retire today, leave his lifetime deal with Nike and quit all his endorsements and still be wealthy enough that his family will be taken care of for generations. But most of the league is not so fortunate. Guys at the bottom of the ladder, whose careers only last a few years, need this return in order to maximize their earnings during a short window to do so.
Yes, this return will make money for ownership groups and the league, but it will also keep the cap from massively declining even more than it already will, and give players and others around the league the opportunity to return to work. Whether or not doing so outside of a bubble during a nationwide coronavirus spike is a question for epidemiologists that I’m not qualified to answer, but financially this is a big deal for more than just the people who own these teams. A player of James’ stature and influence saying they understand that is probably a big tone setter for others who may be hesitant (for fatigue reasons) around the NBA.
(This is where I should note, in the interest of transparency, that the league returning benefits me professionally as well, so feel free to take my words with a grain of salt, although I am trying to remain as unbiased as possible in my analysis.)
James opposing a return wasn’t going to stop it, but him seeing the larger picture and accepting this is something bigger than him and the Lakers is a positive development for the team and those who support it. There will surely be a few moments where he and his teammates are fatigued from the unprecedented length of this run and question their choice, but in the long run, this is financially better for everyone in and around the league. It seems James has recognized that, and is ready to tackle this latest challenge head-on.