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Lakers, LeBron at loggerheads: James' comments "put LA on notice"

ESPN's Brian Windhorst says LeBron James' All-Star Weekend interview was not a signal of his intention to leave the LA Lakers, but was a way of saying he expects changes.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - FEBRUARY 20: LeBron James reacts after being introduced as part of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team during the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 20, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Tim NwachukwuAFP

LeBron James lit the blue-touch paper on All-Star Weekend. In his native Cleveland, James decided it was the moment to say something that grabbed everyone’s attention, sending shockwaves through the NBA. “My last year will be played with my son," the Los Angeles Lakers star revealed in an interview with The Athletic’s Cleveland-based reporter Jason Lloyd. "Wherever Bronny is at, that's where I'll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It's not about the money at that point.” The former Cavaliers favourite was also asked about the possibility of a third spell in Cleveland, where the team is now performing very well - and replied that “the door’s not closed on that”. “I’m not saying I'm coming back and playing, I don't know,” James said. “I don't know what my future holds.”

James’ words caused a major stir, and were accompanied by praise for the Cavaliers and for Sam Presti, the general manager at the Oklahoma City Thunder. Such praise was interpreted as a barb aimed at the Lakers and, specifically, GM Rob Pelinka’s management of the winter trade window. James appears to have been left unimpressed by the lack of deals done by the Lakers at the 10 February deadline. The franchise did not make any trades, keeping hold of Russell Westbrook despite fingers being pointed at the player - who was a summer arrival championed by LeBron - as one of the team’s chief problems.

LeBron expects Lakers to "make some changes" this summer

James’ comments have been the hot topic of debate in the NBA, with journalists being briefed left, right and centre. Brian Windhorst of ESPN has sought to explain the 37-year-old’s remarks, defining them as an attempt to "put the Lakers on notice". “From what I understand, this is not LeBron saying, ‘I don’t want to be with the Lakers, I don’t want to be in Los Angeles,’” Windhorst said. “It’s him saying, ‘I’m not happy with the way nothing was done at the trade deadline, and I want you to know that this summer I expect you to make some changes.’”

Windhorst is a journalist with close ties to James and his camp, having grown up in the player’s home town of Akron and gone to the same high school. Therefore, Windhorst’s information may well come from James himself, or his close circle. If so, it can be seen as a way of applying further pressure on the Lakers to snap into action in the summer - the final summer in which James will be under contract. He’ll be a free agent in 2023, a year before his son Bronny is expected to arrive in the NBA, all being well. All eyes in the world’s top basketball league are therefore on what happens in 12 months’ time, as its biggest name chooses where to enjoy the final chapter of his career. Added to the possibility of a return home to the Cavs, there is the question of whether or not he will play with Bronny.

Coming months at struggling Lakers will be all about James' future

Everything will be decided in the coming months - months in which there’ll be more talk about his future than a less-than-rosy present. The Lakers are playing badly and are ninth in the West, having won less than half of their games (27-31). Their chances of reaching the playoffs without having to go through the play-in first are almost nil, and they would be far from guaranteed to get through the play-in. Anthony Davis is currently out injured (after suffering a heavy sprain against the Utah Jazz, he’ll be reassessed in three weeks’ time) and the team is very clearly dysfunctional. So all the focus will be on James’ future and what promises the franchise has made to the small forward - who, in his 19th season in the NBA, continues to perform exceptionally (29.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists).

Windhorst isn’t the only journalist who has discussed the issue. In comments published by Lakers Daily, Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, who is well connected to the Lakers, says that this summer is key. If James doesn’t sign an extension then, he can be expected to depart Los Angeles in 2023. Meanwhile, NBA journalist Marc Stein has offered a different take on the situation, warning James that he is not as powerful at the Lakers as he thinks he is. In a column on Substack, he remembered a case that was different, but was an important moment in the franchise’s recent history. “This is an organisation that has cut ties completely with Lakers icon Jerry West,” Stein noted, in reference to the Lakers legend’s 2000 exit as a franchise executive, after a number of high-profile spats with fellow management. “James and agent Rich Paul, for all the perceived control they wield, are still outsiders when it comes to the Lakers’ power dynamics. If West can be cut off, rest assured LeBron can, too”.