No athlete in the history of American sports is more synonymous with free agency than LeBron James. James has changed teams via free agency three times during his 19 years in the NBA, and he’s led his new franchise to a championship with each move. As he enters the twilight of his career, he has the opportunity to wield his power in free agency one more time.
James is entering the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. He is now eligible to sign an extension that would pay him $97.1 million over two years. If he accepts the deal, he’d lock in the largest career earnings in NBA history at $532 million. If he doesn’t accept it, James will be an unrestricted free agent again in 2023 and will ignite another year of rampant speculation about his future.
James will turn 38 years old in Dec. He’s no longer the consensus best player in the NBA, but he’s comfortably still in the top-10 of the sport. If James is a free agent, there will be plenty of teams around the league ready and willing to create max cap space to sign him.
The big question is a simple one: what does LeBron want out of the end of his career? There are a few different ideas floating around to this point.
LeBron James wants to play with his son Bronny
James has publicly stated several times that he wants to play with his oldest child, LeBron James Jr. aka Bronny James, before he retires. Here’s what he said during All-Star Weekend in February:
“My last year will be played with my son,” James said. “Wherever Bronny is at, that’s where I’ll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It’s not about the money at that point.”
Bronny James will be a high school senior this upcoming season at Sierra Canyon in LA. He’s currently ranked at the No. 43 overall prospect in his class by the 247 Sports composite. Read our full breakdown of James Jr.’s skill set and path to the NBA here.
No one knows what Bronny’s next step will be after high school. He has scholarship offers from almost every major college program, including Duke and Kentucky. He could potentially play for the G League Ignite program that helped develop Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, and Dyson Daniels into top-10 NBA draft picks. He could spend the year training for the draft, or play in an alternate program like Overtime Elite.
It’s too early to say what James’ draft stock will look like, but right now it feels unlikely he’ll be a top-10 pick in 2024. At the moment, I’d project him as an early second rounder, but of course that can change. If LeBron is really willing to follow his son wherever he gets drafted regardless of money, it’s possible Bronny’s draft stock enjoys a significant rise in the pre-draft process.
LeBron James could try to match Michael Jordan’s 6 championships
James has been compared to Michael Jordan since he was in high school. As his legendary career nears its conclusion, most agree that Jordan and James are the two greatest players in NBA history. While there’s certainly a strong argument for James as the GOAT, it feels like a large section of fans won’t consider that he could pass MJ until he matches or surpasses his six championships.
Right now, James has four championship rings: two with the Miami Heat, one with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one with the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s possible he’ll make his next free agency decision based around which team gives him the best chance to win a championship, as he’s done before when he signed with Miami.
While James won a championship with the Lakers in the bubble in 2020, the last two years have not been promising for LA. The Lakers were eliminated in the first round in the 2021 playoffs, and then missed the playoffs completely in 2022. If James doesn’t believe he can realistically compete for a title by staying with the Lakers, would he really re-sign?
LeBron James could want to return to Cleveland
There’s already speculation that James could return to Cleveland for a third time when he’s a free agent in 2023. The Cavs have built a great young core since James departed for the Lakers. Last year’s rookie big man Evan Mobley could be a future superstar, while teammates Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen were each named All-Stars last year. All three players are between 21-24 years old.
James said ‘the door isn’t closed’ on returning to Cleveland during 2022 All-Star Weekend:
“The door’s not closed on that,” James told The Athletic on Saturday following the East’s team practice on the campus of Cleveland State. “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.”
It would make sense if LeBron wanted to end his career in Cleveland for sentimental reasons. Of course, the Cavs would also provide James with a better title shot than the Lakers, and the opportunity to play with Bronny.
Cleveland’s rebuild is really just missing a dynamic forward, and there’s no one better to fill that role than James. Cleveland is reportedly “not proceeding with the intention of getting LeBron for a third time,” according to The Athletic. The Cavs could have up to $30 million in cap space next summer with the opportunity to create more.
If LeBron doesn’t accept the Lakers’ extension, there will be plenty of rumors tying him to Cleveland whether it’s realistic or not.
LeBron James could want to stay in Los Angeles
James has his business interests in Los Angeles. He’s relocated his family there, with middle son Bryce James set to enter his sophomore year at Sierra Canyon this season. Even if the Lakers don’t give LeBron the best chance to win another title, it’s possible he’ll be content to end his career in Los Angeles with the hope of playing alongside Bronny.
LeBron James can wield his power in free agency one more time to get the Lakers to trade Russell Westbrook
James has never requested a trade during his career, but he’s been incredibly effective getting what he wants by leveraging the threat of leaving in free agency. LeBron left Cleveland the first time because they couldn’t build a championship roster around him. He left Miami partially because owner Micky Arison used the amnesty clause on Mike Miller to avoid going too far into the luxury tax. He left Cleveland a second time after Kyrie Irving forced his way out to Boston and the roster around him started to collapse.
What does James want from LA this time around? It isn’t hard to parse his intentions: LeBron wants the Lakers to trade Russell Westbrook and acquire Irving. LeBron and Westbrook sat on opposite sides of the gym during Summer League and had no interaction. Irving is potentially on the trade block entering the final year of his contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
LA could trade its 2027 and 2029 first round picks for Irving, but the organization has reportedly been reluctant to do that. Many viewed this tweet from Lakers owner Jeanie Buss on July 4 as a shot at LeBron urging the Lakers to trade future picks for Irving:
I miss KB. He would understand and explain everything that I’m not allowed to. Honestly he was the greatest Laker ever. He understood team over self. Meaning your rewards would come if you valued team goals over your own then everything would fall into place. All can reply.— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) July 4, 2022
With Westbrook on the roster next year, the Lakers have no shot at a championship. If they can move him for Irving, it’s possible the Lakers could be championship contenders if James, Irving, and Anthony Davis all stay available. Of course, that’s a big if.
If all things were equal, it feels like James would re-sign with the Lakers, compete for a championship, and play a season with Bronny. It’s the whole “championship contention” angle that feels like the biggest hurdle for LA at the moment.
It feels like James is still good enough to be the best player on a championship team, but at this stage of his career he needs plenty of help. Can he get it in LA? Would he rather play with Bronny at the cost of realistically competing for another title? This all comes down to what LeBron wants at the end of his career. His decision on a contract extension will be the first big sign.