Plaschke: LeBron James’ new contract guarantees one thing — more Lakers mediocrity

Two more guaranteed years of LeBron James?

Two more years of history, two more years of glamour, two more years of buzz.

Two more years of injury reports, two more years of bad drama, two more years of embarrassing mediocrity.

So, Lakers fans, how are you looking at this?

If you like your basketball with bells and whistles, you will react to Wednesday’s news of James’ new contract with a cheer.

If you like it with championships, however, you will react with a sigh.

Me, I think I’ll just scream.

James is arguably the best player in basketball history and will undoubtedly command the league’s biggest headlines this season when he passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. There was a time when building on the final year of his contract with a two-year extension worth $97.1 million would have been a brilliant decision for a title-contending team.

Now is not that time, and this is not that place.

An organization in need of a massive rebuild just signed up for a flashy rerun. A franchise lacking in youth and depth just tied its fortunes to a guy who will play his final guaranteed season at age 39.

James will play for the Lakers this season under the terms of his current contract and is guaranteed to play here next season under the first year of the extension, and then could possibly play here during the 2024-25 season as the contract contains a player option. . So, two years guaranteed, with the possibility of a third year, and it’s all too much.

A team that needs to build for the future remains stuck in the past, forgoing substance for sizzle, clinging to an aging star even as the sky is falling around them.

Proponents of James’ new contract will say this sets up the Lakers to win now. With James committed as their cornerstone, the Lakers might now feel the freedom to loosen the grip on those 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks and make a deal for a veteran scorer. With no cap space in the immediate future, they might also be inspired to take back the sort of bad contract that is often required in an NBA swap.

Bottom line, this extension could mean that, yes, hallelujah, the Lakers can now trade Russell Westbrook.

But think, for a moment, about what this extension assumes.

It first assumes that James is still capable of leading a team to a full-season championship. The truth is that he is not.

In his three full seasons with the Lakers — not counting the abbreviated bubble championship in 2020 — James has led his group to exactly zero playoff series wins, and only one playoff appearance. He can’t do it by himself anymore, and he can’t do it with brittle Anthony Davis, and now the Lakers won’t be able to bring him another superstar while he’s here.

The extension also assumes that James will be healthy enough to be the full-time Lakers leader during the regular season. The painful reality is that he will not.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook greets, from left, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony as he is introduced before a preseason game against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 12, 2021.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

In those three full seasons, he averaged 52 games played. That means he’s missed an average of 30 games a year. That’s more than two missed months per year. Yet they’re giving him an even longer contract? How does that make any sense?

Yes, James was timeless and tough and incredible last season, averaging 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. But if an athlete’s most important ability is their availability, he flunked once again.

Perhaps the biggest argument against extending James can be found in what could have happened if he was allowed to walk after this season when his contract would have expired.

If James left, the Lakers could have entered the 2023-24 season with more than $70 million in cap space. That would be enough to bring in a superstar while setting the stage for another one the following year. Now that’s a rebuild.

Instead, not surprisingly, the Lakers chose to tighten their grip on the sagging shoulders of the biggest sports star on the planet in a move that seemed more about his fame than his game.

It’s like the Lakers said, OK, we’re gonna be mediocre for the next couple of seasons anyway, so why not at least keep the one player who makes us watchable?

Instead of starting the hard work of becoming great again, they decided to settle for just being an attraction again. That may be the Hollywood way, but, contrary to popular belief, it has never been the Lakers way.

And, by the way, don’t dare compare this with Kobe Bryant’s two-year, $48-million contract that carried his damaged body through the end of his Lakers career. In this town, LeBron James is not Kobe Bryant, nor will he ever be.

Despite initial criticism in this space, Bryant’s deal proved to be well worth the farewell, while James has not been a Laker long enough, or connected with the community closely enough, to ever be considered a true Lakers icon.

Nevertheless, this extension does undoubtedly prove that James shares one trait with previous Lakers stars. James seemingly runs the team, which could be problematic when he reaches the player-option portion of his contract before the 2024 season.

Remember when James told the Athletic that he wanted to play in the NBA with his son Bronny? Besides placing undue pressure on his son, who is considered a top-50 prospect as he enters his senior season at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High, James comments could also place the same heat on the Lakers to draft the son when he is eligible two years from now or risk losing the father.

Two more guaranteed years of LeBron James?

A move that ordinarily would have brought out the purple and gold flags instead felt like the raising of a white one.

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