LeBron James currently sits atop the basketball world, a reigning champion and Finals MVP. He has stated the belief that the Los Angeles Lakers can repeat. He is less than a year from the planned release of his Space Jam movie, the culmination of his entry into entertainment a decade ago.
But, perhaps for the first time in his career, James is admitting some mortality. That is why, sources described to ESPN, he elected to sign a two-year, $85 million contract extension through 2023 with the Lakers on Wednesday.
Functionally James added one year to his contract (he previously had a player option for the 2021-22 season) and has now assured himself of $45 million at 38 years old, the age limit for players to sign multi-year deals. James now has every dollar possible from the Lakers under contract.
Call it insurance, call it a safeguard or call it a soon-to-be season-18 athlete who is about to play his 60,000th NBA minute acting responsibly.
It has nothing to do with free agent teammate Anthony Davis, sources said. If James and Davis were willing, they could've made sure they were free agents next summer when a number of big names might be on the market. The Lakers, who currently only have about $15 million on their books for the 2021-22 season, could have gotten creative to add another major name.
But James, sources said, was not interested in that. He believes the Lakers will continue to spend and continue to draw talent. And his top priority when it comes to his contract has got to be getting everything he has earned.
As for Davis, sources said, he is still weighing how to structure his contract as he tries to gauge how the salary cap will grow in the next few years. Davis has been looking at spreadsheets trying to best guess how to plan the contracts for the rest of his career beyond this deal he's soon to sign. His decision making is independent of James, though they share agent Rich Paul, and now that James is locked into an extension.
This is not something he would've done when he was 30, when he signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Or when he was 32, when he signed a two-year deal. Back then when he wanted to hold the Cavs' feet to the fire and was focused on a rising salary cap, the risk/reward scenario was different.
James was watching four years ago when friend Dwyane Wade had an acrimonious departure from the Miami Heat in a contract dispute. At 35 with knee issues, the Heat's offer to Wade was significantly less than he wanted and it led to his departure to the Chicago Bulls.
Wade later reunited with the Heat and had a pleasant end to his career, but it was a lesson James remembered.
This has never been an issue for Lakers greats over the years. They took care of Kobe Bryant with a two-year extension when he was coming back from a torn Achilles. They took care of Magic Johnson at the end of his career.
At this minute, that doesn't seem like it would be something James would need to worry about. He just finished second in the regular-season MVP voting. Common sense would say James could continue to be paid top dollar for the foreseeable future.
But his first season in L.A. was derailed by a groin injury, and coming into last season there were plenty of speculation that maybe the three-time Finals MVP had lost a step. If James had wanted a greater commitment after that first tumultuous season in L.A., would the Lakers have reciprocated?
It's a moot point now, there's a banner going up soon and he's extended -- but it's a window into how James' is truly thinking at this stage.
This is ultimately a conservative move by James and Paul, who are known for being aggressive with contracts. It does line up with their goal for the last six years, which was to get James paid. It wasn't until the 2014-15 season, James' 12th in the league, that he was the highest-paid player on his team.
And it wasn't until the current collective bargaining agreement, which James helped negotiate as union vice president, that he could even sign a contract like this. The old rule limited multi-year contracts to when players turned 36, which James will on Dec. 30.
In the end, this deal will push James' career earnings to more than $435 million, the most all-time. That mission, it seems, will be accomplished.