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Analysis: Lakers’ offseason extension with LeBron James has created more pressure, not less

ATLANTA — When LeBron James signed pen to paper in August, it seemed to be a sign that the Lakers would avoid a season of high drama.

James, who turns 38 on Friday, has made a career of signing short-term deals that he can use as leverage to convince his teams to make win-now moves. But with the Lakers, he’s taken a different path: His original 2018 Western migration saw him sign a max deal with the franchise, then after winning a championship, he signed another two-year extension.

When he signed his third contract extension with Purple and Gold for two years and $97.1 million, it was seen as an endorsement of the Lakers – in spite of their two-year slide after their title-winning peak. The Lakers were sure eager to paint it as such.

“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with him, ensuring he’s a driving force of Lakers culture for years to come,” general manager Rob Pelinka wrote in a team-issued statement. “The Lakers platform has proved again and again to be an ideal place for the game’s all-time greats to thrive and achieve. We are thankful LeBron has experienced the power of that.”

The price tag implied that the Lakers wouldn’t be operating under the looming threat of James entering free agency. But just a few months into the deal, a curious effect has taken hold: The Lakers (14-21) are now facing the scrutiny of managing the end of an all-time great’s career when he’s clearly unhappy at the state of affairs. 

The franchise – which has navigated the end of such storied playing careers as Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant – has to make tough decisions about James, in part because he’s so unusually competitive for his age. There has never been an NBA player averaging more than 27 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists at age 38 (only three others have even averaged over 20 at age 38: Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Abdul-Jabbar).

After Wednesday’s loss in Miami, James put pressure on the franchise – not with contract leverage, but with the pressure for the Lakers to honor his long-term future with them: “I think about that I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level from a team aspect. I’ll still be able to compete for championships because I know what I can still bring to any ball club with the right pieces.”

While the Lakers have discussed internally the need to weigh the future of the franchise among its considerations, James’ production – in the midst of losing 9 of the last 13 games – is a powerful argument that they should invest more in the present. Given that the Lakers extended James in August, they can’t trade him until next summer. New Orleans has the right to swap first-round picks with them, meaning that they can’t improve their draft position by allowing themselves to slide. 

A big bonus to playing out the year would be to get big contracts, especially Russell Westbrook’s $47 million, off their books to use in free agency. But that requires patience – which James doesn’t seem to have. Eagle-eyed social media trackers have noted that James deleted a tweet from the spring: “I can/will NOT miss the post season again for my career! This (expletive) HURT.”

James has pressured his teams – and the Lakers – before to make moves, to varying degrees of success. But one influence it almost always has is adding pressure to teammates. In 2019 as rumors of an Anthony Davis trade swirled, the Lakers were creamed in a road game to the Indiana Pacers. After James called out his own team for not being able to reach the Milwaukee Bucks’ level earlier this year at the 2022 deadline, the Lakers were throttled the next night in Portland.

As of Thursday night, James was still questionable for Friday’s game in Atlanta. Even before he spoke out on Tuesday, other veterans were questioning the collective maturity and composure of the team following a loss in Miami. Patrick Beverley said the Lakers have the components to win consistently, but haven’t been consistent enough.

“I feel like we have enough to win on any given night: sense of urgency, discipline, mixed with a little IQ, mixed with a little passion, enthusiasm – all that mixed together,” Beverley said. “At times, we do show it. At glimpses, we don’t. And when we don’t, we lose.”

The best Laker greats have rarely seen themselves go out on top. Elgin Baylor famously retired during the 1972 season when the Lakers would go on to break through for the first L.A. championship. Abdul-Jabbar reached the Finals stage but the Lakers were swept by the Pistons. West suffered a first-round loss in 1974, and Johnson’s comeback season ended in a first-round loss in 1996. Bryant never sniffed the playoffs his final three seasons, embarking on a 17-win campaign in 2015-16 when injuries had taken a toll and the team was fully rebuilding.

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James’ production sets him apart even at this stage, as he chases Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record while still ranking in this season’s top 10 in scoring average. As James himself put it: “It doesn’t seem like many have played at this level with this many years and this many miles and things on their resume.”

Whether the Lakers have the stomach to chase what James is chasing – and commit their resources to change up the team – will determine how happy this partnership will be.

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