Let’s start with a trivia question, and you won’t even have to wait until the end of this column for the answer.
What is the status of the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick in 2024?
The answer: It belongs to the New Orleans Pelicans, unless the Pels defer the pick until 2025.
What a delightful little twist in trying to figure out what LeBron James does with the contract extension the Lakers are likely to offer him Thursday.
LeBron, who will be 38 in December, is serious about wanting to finish his career playing on the same team as his eldest son. Bronny James will be a senior in high school this year and, by NBA rules, will be eligible for the draft in 2024.
But the Lakers don’t have a first-round pick in that draft right now, unless the Pelicans OK it. Who would make that decision? New Orleans vice president David Griffin, who is close to and won a championship with LeBron when the two worked together in Cleveland.
LeBron’s cleanest path to playing with Bronny is if Griffin gives the Lakers back their pick.
On Thursday, James becomes eligible for a two-year, roughly $98 million extension from the Lakers. If he accepts it, or even if he asks for (and gets) a one-year, $47 million extension, much of the drama goes away. There will be no questions surrounding his future to sully his likely passing of Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer this season.
But there is at least some question as to what LeBron will do, because the Lakers’ roster does not appear to be near title contention. James has, in the past, used this exact scenario to apply pressure (to Griffin and the Cavs, actually) on his current team to continually improve the roster – by agreeing only to sign short-term deals.
Parsing the likelihood of an Anthony Davis rebound or a Russell Westbrook-for-Kyrie Irving flip is for another story. For now, if LeBron wants to try to tie Michael Jordan’s six championships, there is a case to be made that he could better pursue that goal elsewhere.
But LeBron’s familial wishes and well-being carries more weight than in years past, because of where the other members of it are in their own lives.
In the weeks and months that followed LeBron’s surprise conversation with The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd about not ruling out another Cleveland return, James and the people closest to him said he was happy in Los Angeles. His family is happy, and it’s something that certainly seems to matter in this case.
LeBron’s middle child, Bryce, is entering his sophomore year of high school. His youngest, daughter Zhuri, will be 8 this fall. They, not to mention LeBron’s wife, Savannah, are entrenched in L.A.
Worth a billion dollars, as James is now, that kind of money can create a lot of comfort anywhere. But what it can’t make up for is changing schools for Bryce after spending most of his formative years growing up with his group of friends in L.A. Would Bryce survive if he had to spend his last two years before college somewhere else? Of course. But the family isn’t in a situation where Bryce has to move because of dad’s job. LeBron always wanted to be a Laker, and now he is one making more money than he could elsewhere and enjoying life to the fullest, even when the team loses.
The other option in this hypothetical scenario, where LeBron leaves the Lakers as a free agent next summer, is to spend the season living apart from Savannah and the two younger children.
Families do this all the time, especially in sports. And the James gang has access to private airplanes. But judging by his social media posts alone, does LeBron strike you as someone who would be comfortable living outside of his own home, where his wife and two younger children are? (Bronny, in the fall of 2023, will either be in college, with G League Ignite or in Australia … or wherever Rich Paul places him.) Having observed him for the better part of a decade, much more closely than Instagram allows, I don’t buy it, either.
It is for these reasons, to say nothing of L.A. being the base for LeBron’s off-court business ventures, that I find his possible free agency next summer unlikely.
But not impossible.
The LeBron-Bronny-teammates thing is real. With this being the modern NBA and stars forcing their way off teams, regardless of contract value or length, anything is possible when it comes to 2024. But the cleanest, easiest way for LeBron and Bronny to land on the same team is for the team that already has LeBron to draft Bronny. Agreeing to a one-year extension then and resetting his free agency to 2024 would seem to muddy the picture.
Paul, James’ agent and one of the most powerful player reps in the NBA, can help in this situation by warning other teams not to draft Bronny until the Lakers could take him in the second round. That is, if Bronny is a second-round player. What if he is better? What if he is worthy of a first-round pick? At a minimum, the Lakers, in talking with LeBron about this upcoming extension, will have to commit to doing what it takes to select his son, even if that means trading away someone or something that could bring back a 2024 first-round pick.
As an aside, in Cleveland, there will be the cap space to sign LeBron as a free agent next summer. The Cavs would not have to touch their promising core of Darius Garland (represented by Paul, no less), Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to do it. Those three, plus a healthy (but older) LeBron, not to mention the other rookies and role players not mentioned here, would indeed vault Cleveland from a slowly rising Eastern Conference contender to a team with immediate championship expectations.
The Cavs have their own first-round pick in 2024. Their own second-round pick for 2024 is gone via trades, but they have a conditional second-rounder from Golden State, and it is otherwise easier to trade for a second-round pick than a first.
OK, I have tied myself up in knots enough over this. The Cavs are not proceeding with the intention of getting LeBron for a third time. As a northeast Ohio native who didn’t move when LeBron left for L.A., I am not planning on him coming back, for the reasons stated above.
I think family weighs too heavily into this, and the easiest move for him is to stay with the Lakers.
But then I saw who has the Lakers’ 2024 pick, and why (Davis trade, anyone?). The trade that made LeBron a winner in L.A. is now a hurdle, if only a small one, to him achieving maybe his last goal in the NBA.
Playing on the same team with his son.
(Photo by Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)