The basketball world erupted when Klutch Sports Group announced that LeBron James would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and had signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. The four-year, $153.3 million contract would have the then 34-year-old James “taking his talents” to Hollywood to join a Lakers team that was only two years removed from Kobe Bryant’s retirement, five years from their last playoffs, and eight years from their previous championship campaign.
And just like that. LeBron James was a Laker.
James would play three seasons in Los Angeles before opting out of his fourth year to sign a new two-year, $85.6 million extension before the start of the 2021 season. But that was not before he returned the Lakers to the playoffs and delivered their 17th NBA Championship in 2020.
That initial extension would have had James a free agent at the end of the 2022-23 season, but before that could play out, James opted out and signed another two-year $97.1 million this past September. As it rests now, James will play in Los Angeles through the 2024-25 season and his 40th birthday.
Unless he chooses to opt out again.
It’s no secret that the Lakers have struggled since the 2019-20 season, despite James putting up all-star-level numbers that would make a younger player blush. Injuries to fellow all-star Anthony Davis and chemistry issues with Russell Westbrook have taken their toll on a team that is pacing to miss the playoffs for the second straight year after being unceremoniously bounced in the first round by a young Phoenix Suns team in 2021.
With father time closing in, some have wondered if James might want to return to the Cavaliers to close out his career where he started, particularly given the current Laker’s woes. James made it even more interesting when during last year’s All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, he hinted to The Athletic that he could return to the Cavaliers for a third run with the team.
“The door’s not closed on that. 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.” – LeBron James
It’s probably a stretch to think he won’t wind down his career in Los Angeles, where he and his family make their off-season home. However, it should be acknowledged that James was careful not to say he would not come back to play in Cleveland before he retires.
The Akron, Ohio native, James, has long expressed interest in becoming an owner of an NBA franchise. Given the timing, the league’s Las Vegas expansion seems to be the most viable option, but if that doesn’t work out, could he join a future ownership group in Cleveland?
Ending his career there where he started would make for quite the storybook transition. Still, the reality is with James’ latest extension, the earliest he could be “free” is at the end of the 2023-24 season via his player option, though he could be traded after February 18, 2023 (9 days after the NBA trade deadline). While it might be in the best interest of the Lakers to move him, particularly if they continue to struggle, Cleveland doesn’t seem a likely destination despite the team needing a small forward and veteran leadership.
The Cavaliers have played solid basketball this season after some significant roster moves. Cleveland acquired Donovan Mitchell in a blockbuster trade with the Utah Jazz in the off-season. Mitchell, alongside 22-year-old Darius Garland, makes a dream backcourt of the future, while 24-year-old center Jarrett Allen and 21-year-old Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley make up the future frontcourt.
The addition of James would make them an instant title contender, but what would they have to give up?
Cleveland went all-in for Mitchell, sending Utah Cavaliers sent Jazz guard Collin Sexton, power forward Lauri Markkanen, rookie wing Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027, and 2029), and two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) for Mitchell. The Cavaliers don’t have much trade capital unless they’re willing to move one or two of their current young stars. Hard to think they’d mortgage the team’s future for a year or two of James, regardless of his history with the franchise.
Another wrinkle in the story is that James is on record saying that before retiring, he wants to play with his son Bronny. Bronny James is an 18-year-old senior guard playing for Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles.
According to 247sports composite rankings, Bronny James is currently a four-star recruit and the No. 43-ranked player in the Class of 2023. He has gotten a solid start to his final high school season and received official offers from Ohio State, Memphis, and USC. At the same time, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Duke, and Kansas are listed as schools interested in the 18-year-old.
The elder James can enter free agency in 2024, the same offseason in which his son could become draft-eligible. And while the Cavaliers have parted with much of their draft capital, including their top picks in six of the subsequent seven drafts, they conspicuously kept their 2024 first-round pick.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence.