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For the Lakers, embracing LeBron’s twilight years is existential

Despite last season’s disastrous outcome and LeBron’s inevitable decline approaching, the Lakers are as committed as ever to holding onto the game’s greatest superstar for as long as he’ll let them.

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Los Angeles Lakers v New Orleans Pelicans

When it comes to being “all-in” on the business of acquiring as many superstars as possible, it has never felt trickier than it does right now for NBA teams.

In a league governed by a salary cap and punitive luxury tax, the complexities of constructing a deep enough roster to survive the grind of a potential 100-game season — all while stacking star players — can be crushing. This is only further complicated by the inherent sacrifices of ceded power and placation to those stars in the form of coaching staff hires and how to fill out the roster with the remaining available resources.

There is no greater example of this of course, than what happened on opposite coasts to two of the presumptive favorites to win the NBA championship this past season. The Nets and Lakers each failed to make good on their title hopes, with the former falling in a first round sweep and the latter coming up short of the playoffs entirely. In retrospect, each has proven to be a cautionary tale representing the downside of the once-coveted three-star build. As the offseason progresses, these tales continue to unfold in ways neither front office feels fully capable of coming out of completely unscathed.

Even in the face of these challenges, however, I have a hard time seeing the Lakers (in particular) ever getting to the point that they’ll want to be out of the star business entirely, especially as they remain so openly committed to LeBron James. In fact, as Rob Pelinka reportedly reiterated in a meeting with James last week, the Lakers would like to be the last team LeBron plays for in his storied career.

There are countless reasons for this, of course.

From the hope of winning another championship to the economic boon by way of ticket sales and TV ratings, employing the game’s biggest stars brings with it real benefits and has been a hallmark of the Lakers franchise since Dr. Jerry Buss acquired the team in 1979.

Of course, this is much truer for a younger player whose entire prime (or close to it) is still in front of them — something that is (clearly) not true for LeBron. But, for the Lakers, much like they did with Kobe Bryant when they re-signed him to a lucrative extension even after he ruptured his Achilles, it’s pretty clear they are hitching their wagon to this generation’s biggest star even if they’re almost certainly doling out big paychecks for the years in which noticeable decline occurs and his status as one of the league’s truly elite players begins to fade.

Again, it’s pretty clear why they’d want to do this. Those financial and, potentially, status-lifting incentives are far too enticing for any organization to ignore. That said, I’d argue that the ultimate reasons have as much to do with what LeBron has already done for the organization and how it’s in the franchise’s DNA to reward those achievements with a sort of “lifetime” relationship that, if at all possible, will carry out through a player’s final game played in an NBA uniform.

If this sounds a little backwards, just remember where this team was not too long ago...

The Lakers had missed the playoffs for five consecutive years spanning the period at the end of Kobe’s career and through the years immediately after. Their win totals hovered in the 20s and 30s, dipping as low as 17 in the 2015-16 season. Then, starting in the summer of 2018, the Lakers accomplished the seemingly impossible in just three seasons.

First, they signed LeBron James as a free agent, getting him to commit to the team even without another All-Star player choosing to come with him. The next offseason, they leveraged LeBron’s Klutch connections and friendship with Anthony Davis to trade for the uber-talented big man in the wake of his trade request, culminating with an NBA Championship that upcoming season. Immediately following that season, LeBron extended his contract for two additional seasons, which is set to expire next summer.

I don’t think any of this can be glossed over or downplayed. The Lakers went from a perennial lottery team to one with a pair of first team All-NBA talents and its 17th NBA championship (tying the Celtics for most all-time). And now, despite all the hurdles they currently face in the aftermath of the calamitous trade for Russell Westbrook, cannot be counted out from regaining their contender status after an offseason transaction or two.

While this does not in any way equal all that Kobe did for the Lakers over the course of his 20-year Hall of Fame career with the franchise, it’s my belief that the Lakers will view their partnership with LeBron through a similar lens that they did with Kobe. As long as they can keep him with the franchise, even if it is eventually in a diminished capacity, they will do so.

To what level he would play matters, of course, but is mostly immaterial to the larger question of “do we or don’t we want him with the team?” — because the answer to that question for the Lakers is a resounding “yes.”

In the end, the Lakers understand they have built their brand around the idea they are the best place to cultivate and enhance the legacy of the modern NBA elite-level superstar. They understand that reputation does not come from them discarding these stars or trying to distance themselves from them later in their careers, but rather embracing them even more tightly and cherishing what was and accepting what will be. They do this even as those stars’ abilities fade, even as their reputation as talents diminish.

They do this because LeBron’s caliber of player doesn’t come around very often, if ever; they do it because, as a family business, the organization and its leaders understand the bonds they’ve created through collective achievement.

And it’s why, if LeBron will have them, the Lakers will happily reciprocate as long as he’s able to play this game.

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