We were told that patience would be required before LeBron James made a decision on the Lakers and his future, but in reality, it took less than two weeks—on Wednesday, it was reported that James would be signing an extension to his current contract worth $97 million over two years, though the second year (2024-25) is a player option.
That will allow James to hit free agency in the summer of 2024, which is not a big surprise—that’s when Anthony Davis will also be a free agent, allowing the Lakers to perhaps sign another major star, as well as when James’ son, Bronny, could potentially join the NBA and link up with his dad.
At the very least, in the short term, it takes away a concern of the Lakers about James’ commitment to the team. He will not be hitting free agency in 2023, despite the Lakers coming off an abysmal 33-49 season in which they missed the postseason, just the fourth time in James’ career he has not been in the playoffs.
James Draws Some Critics
But a side issue with James’ contract: He signed for the max, which means almost $47 million next year, potentially higher if the salary cap goes up. That means any hope Lakers fans had that James would accept a discount from the team so that the roster could be improved vanished, and that the team will be limited to about $20 million in cap space next season.
James took some criticism for taking the full contract, appearing to place money over winning. The L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke lamented the deal, writing, “This extension does undoubtedly prove that James shares one trait with previous Lakers stars. James seemingly runs the team.”
And ESPN’s Tim Bontemps tweeted that, “This takes a big potential way for the Lakers to re-tool – him taking less money, like (James) Harden did this summer – off the board.”
But he had some strong defenders, too, especially among those representing players.
“No way he should have given up one cent,” one prominent agent told Heavy Sports. “He plays in the NBA, he generates money for the NBA, it is up to his NBA employer to pay him what he is worth, and he is worth the max, every time. This idea that it is up to the player to sacrifice, that is nonsense. The fact that players agreed to max contract in the first place in the sacrifice. Baseball players are turning down $400 million contracts—imagine what LeBron would get in an open market.”
That was compared to Harden in Philadelphia, who opted out of the final year of his contract, worth $47 million, to sign on for $33 million next season with a $35 million player option for next year. The Sixers are being investigated over whether the team has a handshake agreement to give Harden a major contract next summer to make up for his sacrifice this year.
Agent: League Blossomed Under LeBron
Another NBA agent bristled at the prospect of James being guilted into giving up a max deal after Harden’s Sixers contract.
“Harden did not play well last year, so it is not really the same thing,” the second agent said. “And LeBron does not really owe anyone an explanation on taking the money. Do you know what the midlevel exception was when he came into the NBA (in 2003)? It was $4.5 million. Now it is $10.5 million. The salary cap was $40 million when he came in. Now it’s $120 million. And he’s a huge part of the reason for that. So, yeah, he needs to get paid when he is worth.”
It is worth noting, too, that James is not the first Laker to accept a controversial extension late in his career—the team did the same thing with Kobe Bryant in 2013, even after he tore his Achilles tendon and was not the same player. At the time, Bryant was given $48 million over two years, which was the biggest in the league but not a full max based on his previous salary.
“It’s a big coup for the owners to put players in situations where public perception puts pressure on them to take less money, because if you don’t, then you get criticized for it,” Bryant said in 2014. “It’s absolutely brilliant. But I’m not going for it. And I know the new head of the players’ association (Michele Roberts) ain’t going for it either.”