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Homesoccer newsWhat's next for LeBron James, Lakers after unceremonious playoff exit?

What’s next for LeBron James, Lakers after unceremonious playoff exit?

LeBron James’ 21st NBA season came to a premature end in Denver with a 4-1 series loss to the Nuggets.

Winning 47 games and surviving the Play-In Tournament, by most standards, qualifies as a solid season. Losing to the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs is certainly no shame.

But these are the Lakers, and they have LeBron James. Which means the rules are different.

Whether realistic or not, their purpose was a championship or close enough. The inaugural In-Season Tournament wasn’t the only banner they wanted to raise.

So there’s a measure of bellyaching today in Los Angeles, and more discomforting is the possibility that the Lakers’ 2020 title will be the only one with LeBron.

He’ll turn 40 next season. Hard as it is to believe, LeBron will regress soon enough. That’s not including the assumption that next season will be spent with the Lakers. Prepare for an armageddon summer of free agent speculation.

Can the Lakers salvage what’s left of him, or will they be a 45-ish-win team that reaches the playoffs but does nothing special on his remaining watch, which is ticking?

Here’s what the Lakers are dealing with as they head into an off-season of soul searching:

LeBron’s future

If his only goal was winning a championship, and he didn’t care what city he’d have to live in or how much money he’d make, would LeBron’s first choice be the Lakers?

Probably not.

But let’s be realistic. LeBron isn’t going to Oklahoma City, one of only a handful of contenders with room under the cap. Besides, his wife doesn’t want to leave L.A., where his son Bryce is playing high school ball.

Actually, one team could pull a power play: the Clippers. The have the richest owner in team sports, will move to a new arena next season, can bring back Paul George and/or James Harden, have a coach that LeBron knows and respects in Ty Lue, and last we checked, are based in L.A.

And they could draft Bronny James in the second round and give LeBron his wish. LeBron would have it all — Los Angeles, a chance to play next to his oldest son, a contender and access to Steve Ballmer’s billions.

Could you even imagine?

Assuming LeBron is loyal to the Lakers, he’ll decline his option year and sign an extension, perhaps two seasons. By doing that, however, he’ll be at the mercy of Anthony Davis’ injury tendencies and the front office’s personnel decisions, which leads us to …

The Westbrook trade

Yes, he is long gone, and the die-hard Laker fans who booed him will say good riddance. When the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it was a setback then and still is now.

That’s because they surrendered Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two important rotational pieces from their ’20 championship team, two players who would be extremely useful right now.

Plus, they let Alex Caruso sign with the Bulls. That’s three players, two of them good defenders who could’ve given Jamal Murray some problems, who are missed.

Could Trae Young help?

Well, that depends. Young brings offensive weapons but is vulnerable defensively, and that could present serious issues for a team that, besides Davis, isn’t elite at the other rim.

And there’s no guarantee the Lakers could even pry Young, who’s repped by LeBron’s agency (Klutch), from the Hawks. The conversation about a package would start with Austin Reaves.

DeMar DeRozan is more likely

The L.A. native and unrestricted free agent probably would like to finish his career at home, with a chance to play next to a legend, rather than return to the Bulls. Plus, DeRozan still has game; he remains one of the league’s better clutch players.

But if he wants a big bag, the Lakers are unlikely to compete with others. It’s his call.

D’Angelo Russell up for renewal

If he leaves, is that cause for celebration? Or worry? Maybe both. Russell was solid after the All-Star break, then shaky in the Nuggets’ series.

He has a player option for next season. If the Lakers refuse to fork over a rich extension, D-Lo could go. He has leverage considering the Lakers don’t have a replacement on the roster (Gabe Vincent was injured and a disappointment this season) and free-agent point guard pickings are slim.

Darvin Ham

In the first-round series with the Nuggets, his game-planning was questioned by Davis and his staff was scolded by LeBron for not using a challenge.

When the team’s two All-Stars express lukewarm feelings and don’t publicly endorse the coach, that’s usually the signal for change, whether the front office agrees or not.

Remember, the Lakers dropped Frank Vogel two years after he won a title. Ham doesn’t even have that ace card.

Unless you’re Erik Spoelstra, there is no firm job security when it’s LeBron and the stakes are steep. That’s the deal.

Avoid the Nuggets

Really, would you be reading this if the Lakers didn’t have the misfortune of playing Nikola Jokic and The Bad Matchup Nuggets two straight postseasons?

So that’s the situation this summer in L.A. It all starts with LeBron and his mindset and his whims. Once he signs up for another and likely last tour of duty, the Lakers can take the necessary next steps.

But they were fortunate in this respect in 2023-24: LeBron and AD were healthy. There’s no guarantee that’ll repeat itself. And the Lakers still couldn’t avoid the Play-In Tournament.

The competition in the West is not only brutal, but plump with up-and-coming teams threatening to pass the Lakers by. Unlike the Lakers, the Thunder, Wolves and Mavericks managed to build gradually and are led by superstars still in their 20s. They’re not going anywhere. They’re here for the long-ish haul.

The Lakers are on LeBron James Time. That’s different. Maybe two more years, tops, before the rebuild or reload.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery. 

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