Does LeBron James’ Extension Kill Lakers’ Hopes for Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Does LeBron James’ Extension Kill Lakers’ Hopes for Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

If the Los Angeles Lakers still have designs on adding Giannis Antetokounmpo to a core of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that longest of long shots got even longer with news that James will sign a two-year extension.

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

LeBron James‘ two-year, $85M max extension with the Los Angeles Lakers runs through 2022-23 season, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul tells @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium. James‘ 36th birthday is on Dec. 30. https://t.co/MAF7WjxSWs

Per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, James’ new deal with the Lakers will run through 2022-23. So much for the notion that James might take a $10-15 million discount next offseason to make room for Antetokounmpo. James may have taken a haircut to join the Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, but history will not repeat.

And why should it? The Lakers already have a championship squad, one they’ve improved upon over the offseason with the additions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews. Once Davis re-signs (any day now, Anthony, we’d like some closure to write up our season previews), Los Angeles should be a favorite to repeat.

So much of the team’s success stems from its relationship with James and his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Signing Harrell away from the Los Angeles Clippers may have been a surprise to many, but should it have been? Klutch seems to regularly funnel players to the Lakers (like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Talen Horton-Tucker, Harrell and Davis—and previously JR Smith and Dion Waiters).

And how would taking millions out of James’ well-earned future contract work for Klutch Sports, when that money would go potentially to another agent’s superstar? The simple answer: Not happening.

But the James extension does raise other questions.

Why not extend James beyond the 2022-23 season?

The obvious answer would seem to be his son Bronny James, the high school sophomore at Sierra Canyon. If the NBA revises the one-and-done rule (which is in negotiation, though a lower priority as the league and National Basketball Players Association work together to get through the pandemic), James the younger would be draft-eligible in 2023.

Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh

Let’s say it’s 2023. You hold the No. 1 pick in 2023 NBA Draft. LeBron is a free agent, still All-NBA. His son Bronny is eligible for the Draft.

How high would Bronny have to be on your Big Board to justify taking him No. 1 in order to maybe get LeBron, too? 5th? 30th? 100th?

“I damn sure would love to stick around if my oldest son can have an opportunity to play against me,” James told Mark Anthony Green of GQ in 2017. “That’d be, that’d be the icing on the cake right there.”

Perhaps that dream has evolved from competing against his son to sharing a locker room?

It’s a sweet story, but the answer is a little more technical. James will be 38 years old when the 2023-24 campaign begins. One of the complex rules within the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement has language to dissuade teams from giving out four- or five-year deals to players who will be over 38 during the contract.

James likely opted out of the final year of his current contract, which had him making $41 million, to replace that year with a slight bump up to $41.2 million, while adding another season at about $44.5 million. An extension starts with the current season. Adding two more years enabled James to lock in another $44.7 million (approximately) without triggering the over-38 rule.

He got as much as the Lakers could possibly give. That it may time perfectly with his son’s potential entry to the NBA is a bonus. If not, James might need to sign another one-year deal.

What does it mean for AD?

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

If Davis hasn’t come to terms with the Lakers by now, he’s mulling over the many pathways for his career. Davis has eight years of NBA experience, which places him in the middle maximum-salary tier. He can sign with the Lakers at $32.7 million in starting salary, but the question is how long should he sign for?

If the goal is to get the most amount of money locked in under contract, he should sign a five-year, $189.9 million contract, but that may not be the most lucrative path. Davis will reach that 10-years-of-service mark after the 2021-22 season, bumping him up to the higher max tier with a projected starting salary of $40.5 million. A five-year contract signed in 2022 could yield Davis up to $235 million.

If Davis signed a three-year deal this week with the Lakers, with a player option in the final year that he doesn’t exercise, and then signed a new five-season contract in 2022, he could earn a combined $303.2 million over a seven-year period.

That doesn’t quite time with James’ 2023 free agency, although Davis could end up making a decision based on other factors outside of maximum earning potential. He could even sign for just a single season and be the one to take a massive discount for a player like Antetokounmpo, but that would be foolhardy given the bounty he’d be turning away.

Does the Lakers’ Dream of Giannis Die?

Probably. The Lakers chasing cap room in 2021 was always specious. The team petitioned the league to get Luol Deng‘s dead $10 million off its books, but to no avail. The Lakers opted not to stretch the waived contracts of Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell, saving an extra $526,687 of potential cap space next summer.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Instead, their combined $1.6 million in waived salary will prevent the Lakers from signing a 15th player to start the season (the team is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using its non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Harrell). It’s a short-term problem that will resolve itself in a few months. As the price of a minimum contract prorates downward daily, that last spot may be used to add another player on the buyout market months down the road.

After re-signing Jared Dudley, the Lakers are at 13 players with enough room for one more (but not two). They also have a pair of players on two-way contracts including Kostas Antetokounmpo, the current back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player’s younger brother.

The Lakers also seemed to be building a relationship with another agency in Octagon, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is partnered with Alex Saratsis and Jeff Austin. Is it a coincidence that Schroder, Matthews and the younger Antetokounmpo are all with Octagon?

Wasn’t it that first year with Caldwell-Pope, a year before James’ arrival in Los Angeles, that the Lakers began to build a relationship with Paul and Klutch? It doesn’t take much to see the Lakers were trying to follow the same path.

But now with James on the books, and assuming the Lakers are able to trade Caldwell-Pope, Gasol and their 2021 first-round pick after the draft without taking any salary back, Davis would need to take a discount of about $10 million to give the team enough cap room.

Beyond asking too much of Davis, it would likely mean the Lakers part ways with Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Harrell, Caldwell-Pope, Schroder and just about everyone else on the roster. Of course, if the Bucks were willing to trade Antetokounmpo for Kuzma, Caruso, Harrell, Caldwell-Pope, Schroder and just about everyone else on the roster, they might have a deal.

If L.A. has any faint hope, it’s that Antetokounmpo demands a trade…to the Lakers. Given the Lakers’ dearth of tradeable future first-round picks (most tied up with the New Orleans Pelicans in the deal that brought in Davis), the Bucks would obviously do everything they can to get their star to re-sign. But failing that, the Lakers may not be atop their priority list if they did decide to move Antetokounmpo.

What does it say about the Lakers-Klutch relationship?

It’s a partnership. The Lakers are taking care of James. James is taking care of the Lakers. It’s a mutually beneficial symbiosis.

The addition of Harrell, one of the top bench players in the league the last few years, is a prime example.

And if the Lakers can find a way to draft Bronny James when the time comes, they may move mountains to do so to extend their run with James as long as they possibly can.

What else does this suggest about the Lakers’ future?

Enough with the third star already. The Lakers just won the title and upgraded the roster. Now they can play out the 2020-21 season to see if they have the right fit around Davis and James.

If Schroder is the secondary playmaker/scorer to complement James, then they can reinvest in him after this season. Kuzma is extension-eligible, and if he continues to grow, they should give him a contract.

Harrell may be looking for a bigger payday (he has a player option after the season), but he too could be a long-term piece for the Lakers.

Take away the pressure to build a superteam, and the Lakers may actually have something special already. James and Davis together in and of itself is more than what nearly any team has to offer.

At some point, James will start to slow down as he ages. But if last season is any indicator, he and the Lakers will remain a force for some time.

Email Eric Pincus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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