As the clock ticked toward noon on Wednesday, the NBA world was poised for the release of the full 2022-23 schedule.
Naturally, LeBron James pushed his way back to the top of the conversation.
The 37-year-old has agreed to a two-year contract extension worth $97.1 million, which could make him a Laker through 2025. The deal, first reported by ESPN, includes a second-year player option and a 15% trade kicker, which all but ensures James will be in purple and gold for the foreseeable future. The deal makes him the highest-earning NBA player ever (for the time-being in a league with rapidly escalating contracts) with $532 million over the course of his career.
James became eligible for the extension earlier this month, entering the final year of his contract with the chance to be a free agent next summer. The Lakers’ recent struggles, including last season’s 33-49 record, have frustrated James, but the extension indicates that he sees his future with the franchise and in Southern California. James had offered public indications of his warmth recently, working out in the team practice facility including a session with his two sons, Bronny and Bryce.
With a vote of confidence from James, the Lakers now can push forward toward building a more competitive roster. The team is widely understood to be shopping Russell Westbrook, who struggled to fit with James and Anthony Davis last season and openly vented about his frustrations in April. He and James had a frosty interaction at a Lakers’ summer league game in July, and Westbrook split with his longtime agent who publicly implied he was not satisfied with the role outlined by new coach Darvin Ham.
James said in April his prerogative is to seek a fifth championship ring: “I want to help this franchise become a champion once again.”
James has stayed within his prime form throughout his four seasons as a Laker, averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds and 8.2 assists despite aging into his 30s when most players begin to break down. That includes one season as the NBA’s leading assist man (2019-20) and competing for a scoring title (2021-22). The highlight so far has been the 2020 title, during which James was the Finals MVP for the fourth time in his career. He has struggled with injuries, missing at least 25 games each of the last two seasons.
The deal tamps down chatter of a potential split between James and the Lakers, including via trade: Any team taking him on in a swap would have to pay 15% extra on top of his max salary. The Lakers signed James to the longest deal possible under CBA rules, restricting players 38 and older from being extended longer than two seasons.
However, 2024 looms as a critical juncture for the Lakers, who may have to woo James back into the fold if he plans to play out his age-40 season. James told The Athletic earlier this year that he wishes to play with his eldest son Bronny, who could be eligible for the 2024 NBA draft at the earliest: “It’s not about money at that point.” Bronny James is entering his senior year at Sierra Canyon High School.
James figures to play out some big moments in purple and gold: At his current pace, he is expected to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in the regular season sometime next season.