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LeBron James is making it clear he has one foot out the door with the Lakers

Whether he heads back to the Cavaliers, or to go play with his son Bronny, LeBron James is not ending his career with the Lakers. The only thing left to be determined is when exactly he’ll leave.

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

A few hours ago, in a story about LeBron James continuing to throw shade at the Lakers and their front office, I wrote that The King’s comments praising Cleveland for having “three All-Stars” — Cavaliers Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and himself — were taken slightly out of context, and that while he’s clearly unhappy with the situation in Los Angeles, “he also wasn’t necessarily announcing his return to Northeast Ohio just yet.”

Well... it turns out that may have been premature. Because not long after, in an exclusive with longtime LeBron chronicler Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, James... basically announced he’s returning to the Cavaliers at some point:

Now the only question is whether another picture could go up there again some day. Could James actually return to Cleveland and play for the Cavaliers a third time?

“The door’s not closed on that,” James told The Athletic Saturday following the East’s team practice on the campus of Cleveland State. “I’m not saying I’m coming back and playing, I don’t know. I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t even know when I’m free.”

James, of course, is a free agent after next season. He is tethered to the Lakers for one more year.

After that? Buckle up.

As a minor aside, “I don’t even know when I’m free” like the Lakers have him in basketball prison and he’s unaware of how long his contract lasts for has to be one of the funniest lies James has ever delivered with a straight face. I really wish that interview was on video. Just incredible deadpan delivery by such a seasoned thespian.

But... yeah. Things have been heading this way for a while. Our own Anthony Irwin and ESPN’s Jorge Sedano predicted this exact news cycle in a podcast on Wednesday. It was only a matter of which outlet James would drop these breadcrumbs this entire loaf of bread to this weekend while in Cleveland, not if he would at all.

And if it’s not the Cavs he’s returning to, he is going to go play with his son Bronny, who will be draft eligible in 2024. But at this point, it’s hard to see him being on the Lakers by then, anyway, so any concern about that as far is it pertains to this team is basically moot:

So James continuing this air-out session in public is making it crystal clear just how unhappy with the situation he helped create, but that latter reality isn’t something he seems eager to take responsibility for, or take into account while planning his inevitable exit. And it’s hard to blame him for that, honestly. He doesn’t owe the team he saved from the brink of death a whole lot. Even if his exit gets ugly, he still accomplished a whole lot more behind the scenes and on the court in his few years here than any of the front office principles tangentially involved with helping him do so.

Plus, to be fair to James, this is always how he’s operated since his time with the Miami Heat. He gives teams an incredible chance to win through his own sheer talent, and pushes and pushes to go all-in with all their assets until the cupboards are dry, and then he heads to his next destination. He did the same thing the last time he was in Cleveland, bringing them their first ever title, and then came to Los Angeles to do it again. Not expecting him to do so again was foolhardy and ignorant of who James has always been, especially after things have gone so poorly this year.

The only question now is when exactly James is going to leave. We’ll have more time for full retrospectives on the LeBron/Lakers Era when it’s over, but will the end come this summer? Will he ask for a trade? It’s hard to see the team moving him if not, given how they want to be perceived as catering to stars. But if they don’t deal him back to Cleveland this summer, will he just leave the next offseason, when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent? Would he really want to waste one of his final years as a part of this mess? Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about James during his time in purple and gold, it’s that he’s not exactly a patient man, and his increasingly open airing out of the organization he’s grown so quickly dissatisfied with may leave both sides more open to working together to get him where he wants to go than anyone would have expected even just one calendar year ago.

That last sentence is kind of incredible to think about considering that James won a title in Los Angeles approximately 15 months ago. But that’s where we’re at. No sense in pretending otherwise at this point, even if James surely will when he feigns annoyance at being asked about this later, as if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he dropped this bomb to Lloyd, and the previous little grenades in his public All-Star media session. And with James having one foot out the door, the 27-31 Lakers appear headed for a rebuild sooner than just about anyone expected, with very few own draft picks owned outright (albeit a few they may get to keep if the Pelicans continue to be worse and don’t exercise their swap rights).

But whenever James leaves, if one thing is clear, it’s this: Things are probably about to get really, really ugly, both on his way to the exit, and afterwards. That process is already beginning in earnest. The one title was still probably worth it, but there is going to be some pain for it as the Anthony Davis trade bill comes due over the next few years. How the team is able to pivot without the greatest player of all time to help them will tell us a lot about whether this ownership group is really worthy of any of our faith, or if things are going to get way worse before they get better.

So enjoy the rest of the LeBron experience while it lasts. It’s not going to be going on L.A. much longer. He’s at least making sure to warn us ahead of time about that.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.