Even before the mid-range jump shot LeBron James made a few days ago to claim victory over Team Durant and remain undefeated as a captain of the NBA All-Star Game, The King had already become the center of gravity at the league’s annual celebration. Stephen Curry’s 50-point game couldn’t even overshadow the pot that LeBron was stirring off the court.
LeBron made headlines with an interview he did with The Athletic where he stated that he’d play the final season of his career alongside his son Bronny James once he made it to the league, and, more pertinently to the Lakers, he did not rule out a future return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a much different tune than he was singing less than a year ago, when he said he wanted to finish his career in purple and gold.
In addition to that interview, he went out of his way to praise Thunder GM Sam Presti as well as Cavs GM Koby Altman, interesting moves from LeBron given the backdrop of the Lakers’ organization, and the way he and his representation at Klutch Sports seem intent on trading shots across the bow with the team through both anonymously sourced and on-the-record media reports.
But whatever happens in the coming months, LeBron and his camp aren’t making all this noise just for fun. James in particular is a master of media manipulation, knowing how each of his words will be pored over, and choosing them with the laser-like precision of one of his no-look bullets to a corner shooter as a result. This is all about tilting power in their favor, a leverage play they may think is necessary given that LeBron is under contract until 2023, with Father Time bearing down on him, and no other way to exert pressure on the organization to improve. There’s now a variety of plants that LeBron could allow to grow in the future with the seeds he spread this past weekend.
But leverage creation aside, what does LeBron James actually want?
The simplest answer to that question is obvious: At least one more championship before he calls it a career. But does he want that with the Lakers? The Cavs? Someone else? Does he care where it comes from?
Will James sign a two-year extension to his current deal ending in 2023, an extension he can sign once Aug. 4 comes around? Once that time comes, would LeBron, dissatisfied with this season, actually instead tell the team he wants to test the 2023 free agency market, setting the table for a second return back home in Cleveland? Or would LeBron want to accelerate this breakup even more, asking the Lakers to trade him prior to the 2022-23 campaign starting in an effort to not waste what could be one of his last few prime seasons?
The Cavaliers definitely have a far better top-to-bottom roster than the Lakers at this current juncture, with enough young and talented players to surround LeBron with next season, even without whatever assets would have to go to the Lakers to make the deal fair on their end.
And at, the end of the day, if there is one thing his career has made clear, LeBron is trying to get himself a championship, not the Lakers or any of the other 29 franchises across the league. He wouldn’t worry about what feelings he hurts on the Lakers’ side in his championship pursuits, if those pursuits take him back to the Cavs.
However, even though the Lakers may not represent the most promising path on LeBron’s map to a championship, they do represent the past of least resistance. Basketball isn’t the only thing that brought LeBron to L.A. His family wanted to live there full-time, and his numerous business ventures also revolve around the City of Angels.
Sure, his family most likely wouldn’t need to uproot itself out of their L.A. home if he went to a different team, and his business ventures — most specifically SpringHill Entertainment — could definitely continue operating and growing without LeBron in L.A. full-time, but still, does LeBron want his off-the-court life to change that much, this late in his career, just four or five years after it became the most comfortable situation he’s had thus far? Does he really want to be without his family? To have to uproot himself once, just to potentially do it again to go wherever Bronny gets drafted in a few years?
And even without the off-court reasoning for LeBron to not want a departure from the Lakers, there’s plenty of on-the-court reasoning for why a “fresh start” somewhere else may not be the smartest idea. As I previously said, the Cavs do have a pretty good roster that could become a surefire championship contender once LeBron arrived. However, even with all their talent, does LeBron really want to join an extremely young team with zero championship experience? It may be smart to do so after building an old, veteran roster that failed so miserably, but still, it doesn’t seem like something LeBron would actually want, given his fairly transparent preference for veteran teammates throughout his career? Would the Cavs want to give up on their young core just to welcome back the man who spurned them, and who everyone said they were nothing without? That may sound crazy, but egos will factor in here, on both sides of these equations.
Maybe LeBron knows he doesn’t want to make a late career move back to Ohio. The most obvious reasoning for all this pot clanging and acting out, then, is that LeBron just wants Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss’ front office to do his bidding this summer, when the team will have two first-round picks available to use to exchange Russell Westbrook’s expiring contract for a decent amount of immediate help. If Rob, the Rambii, and the rest of the front office don’t want to do that, then LeBron may want Jeanie to replace them. However, if the opinion of the extremely connected Marc Stein means anything, it sounds like Jeanie would be very unlikely to replace those front office members, even if LeBron desired it.
So what is LeBron actually trying to gain from this?
Out of everything outlined above, there’s no option that screams “Oh, LeBron would definitely do this!” Even if LeBron’s move from Cleveland to L.A. was slightly surprising in the moment, it only took a little thought about the family and entertainment industry aspects of the decision to realize we all should have seen it coming. That type of obvious reasoning is hard to come by with the possible major moves that LeBron could make near the end of his career.
Maybe these are all just bluffs from LeBron in this high-stakes poker game that he and the Lakers organization are playing. Maybe he really does have no end goal of leaving L.A., and maybe he’s well aware that the Lakers will call those bluffs by standing behind Pelinka no matter what. In that situation, it would seem that LeBron is manufacturing all of this drama to deliver a simple message to the Lakers’ brain trust: You can continue to ignore or decline my desires for this team, but just know, it’s going to get ugly.
But that’s what he wants right now, in this moment where the Lakers have no moves to make aside from signing players who get bought out from other teams. What will he desire when there are actual basketball decisions to make before getting ready for the 20th season of his career? I’m guessing the 2022 NBA Draft and free agency period — and the moves the Lakers make in those windows — will play a major part in determining how real these threats are, with the full clarity of what LeBron actually wants for the rest of his career not coming until around Aug. 4, when he can decide whether or not he will extend his contract with the Lakers.
If that date comes and goes with LeBron deciding to test free agency in 2023, well, get ready for more of this drama along the 2022-23 campaign. At least at that point, it will feel more real than all this loud but ultimately meaningless pot-stirring.