James and Durant both missed more than 25 games due to injuries last season, but the Nets qualified for the playoffs and didn’t feel the need to sack their coach. When it came to co-stars, both Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook presented unsolvable problems, despite Westbrook having the most difficult contract and therefore holding less commercial value.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a more talented roster and better young players – no trivial matter considering that James, 37, and Durant, 33, are now in the winning phase of their careers. Despite the chaos surrounding their centerpieces, the Nets have managed to add two players, Royce O’Neale and TJ Warren, who are more likely to help a playoff boost in 2023 than any of the newcomers from the Lakers on a budget.
Looking at this side-by-side assessment, it’s amusing that Durant sought to hit the eject button while James was conspicuous in his absence from the drama making headlines. Combined with his annual summer Las Vegas trip, a good attendance at Drew’s League and some backlash over his comments about Britney Grenier being held in Russia, James has kept a low profile this season. Crucially, the four-time MVP will be eligible to sign a two-year, $97 million extension on August 4, but he has yet to hint at his intentions.
Staring at the net, Kevin Durant bears the brunt
James’s relative silence can perhaps be explained by his lack of anything nice to say. Since avoiding questions about the extension during his exit interview in April, James watched Stephen Curry, the lead contender, win his fourth title, then endured a month of unfinished rumors regarding Irving’s exchange for Westbrook. As the Lakers continue to search the league for a Westbrook deal and pin their fading hopes on a rebound campaign from Anthony Davis, the Crosstown Clippers prepare to re-enter the title conversation with healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. These are tough times for James, who insisted the win pays him but now finds the Lakers are stuck without the trading capital needed for a quick fix.
James last faced a contract decision in December 2020, and signed an extension because there wasn’t much to think about. The Lakers had just won the title in the bubble, James had just been named the MVP of the Finals and Davis had looked at the top in his first season in Los Angeles. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was heading to theaters, and James’ dream of playing in the NBA with his teenage son, Bronny, was still several years away.
Much has changed in the two seasons since then, as James struggled with nagging injuries, and watched his support team shift and flirt with the prospect of a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. If he chooses to sign a new agreement with the Lakers that spans the 2024-2025 season, it will be a matter of financial and family comfort. Los Angeles is an unparalleled base for his off-field investments in media and entertainment, and it could stay home until Bruni, now a rookie in high school, qualifies for the 2024 draft.
On the court, staying on the field would be much less desirable. Even if the Lakers relegated Irving, they would still trail the West’s big rivals by a large margin in depth and cohesion. Alternatively, if Westbrook stays, the Lakers will look into the possibility of losing another season due to their poor match with James and Davis. In this scenario, Westbrook’s contract will expire next summer, but the resulting cover space will almost certainly not be enough to address all the Lakers roster loopholes.
Continuing to operate without extending the contract will have its own complications. It’s clear James’ 2023 free agency will attract extensive media coverage, with every twist and turn in the Lakers season analyzed for its impact on his future. This dynamic can prove exhausting and distracting for a reformed roster led by first-time head coach Darvin Hamm.
Also look at the lessons learned from this summer, when five superstars faced obstacles and made concessions. Durant is still in limbo nearly a month after his trade application, as none of the suitors showed up with great offers to blow up Brooklyn. For his part, Irving drew little interest when he sought to sign and trade in June and was forced to accept his player selection.
James Harden was forced to choose between a maximum salary and an increase in his title chances, and ended up taking a $15 million pay cut to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers. John Wall, who was shut down by the Houston Rockets last season, agreed to the takeover so he could sign a mid-range contract. The level is low with the clippers. Finally, Westbrook split from agent Thad Foucher, who issued a statement to ESPN advising his former client to make peace with the Lakers rather than pursuing a deal that could lead to a reputational purchase.
Adam Silver unhappy with trade requests from NBA players
These situations have made it clear that teams will not move in heaven and earth to please the sport’s biggest names forever. While the era of player empowerment in the NBA continues at breakneck speed, even listeners must account for their waning impact once they get older and their contracts swell.
In theory, every team wants James or Durant. Practically speaking, how many aspiring contenders would be willing to forgo half a decade of enlistment choices or slate slates for the right to pay upwards of $40 million annually? Some sure, but not all. And if Durant’s current plight is any indication, perhaps not as much as one might suppose.
James has been a meticulous storyteller throughout his career, crafting the electric hits era, the intimate Cleveland homecoming, and the Lakers charismatic contest. The upcoming season will see him chase Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time record numbers, but even this landmark achievement won’t bring him close to the ultimate benchmark: Michael Jordan’s six episodes.
James may have reconciled with that, opting to make the most of his late career partnership with the Lakers, similar to Kobe Bryant. Or maybe he’ll take his chances by rocking the chessboard next summer, looking forward to a more satisfying final class elsewhere. Either way, it’s surprising that an icon whose power played a role in shaping the NBA for so long is now struggling to have it all.