LeBron James to remain a team player even if Los Angeles Lakers fail to make win-now moves

Just as it has been for his entire four-year tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James hopes the front office makes moves this offseason that prioritizes the franchise’s championship window.

Unlike during part of his time with the Lakers, however, James does not plan to advocate for any specific free-agent signings or trades, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Regardless of how the Lakers construct their roster when free agency begins on Friday at 6 p.m. ET, James also is expected to fulfill the remainder of his two-year, $97 million contract and remain proactive with maximizing his health entering his 21st NBA season.

That doesn’t mean James doesn’t harbor frustrations with his current circumstances. After the Denver Nuggets swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, James told Bleacher Report and ESPN that he may retire. Those around James and the Lakers, however, have since believed he will return and that his sentiments stemmed from varying emotions surrounding the 2022-23 season.

Not only did James suggest retirement while processing the Lakers’ failure to win an NBA championship. After posting 40 points on 15-for-25 shooting, 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals in the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to Denver, the 38-year-old James felt both exhausted and strained from a right foot injury that required daily maintenance after missing 13 consecutive games from late February through late March. Following the Lakers’ various moves before the trade deadline, the Lakers finished with the NBA’s third-best record (18-9). But James eventually realized the Lakers’ current roster did not have enough to win an NBA title.

LeBron James encouraged by Anthony Davis’ playoff run

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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James’ optimism about his NBA title chances will largely center on how well the Lakers continue to build a roster around him and Anthony Davis. Toward the end of the 2022-23 season, CBS Sports reported that James had soured on Davis for his play and his checkered injury history. A person familiar with James’ thinking, however, stressed that James only has felt upset with Davis’ various circumstances as opposed to him personally.  

“LeBron is not frustrated with AD. LeBron is thankful for AD,” the person told Sportsnaut. “Does he wish that both could play and stay healthy the whole time? Of course. But it’s not like he wants a guy to go out there and get injured.”

The person added that LeBron James has felt increasingly encouraged with Davis for improving his play and durability as the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals as a No. 7 seed. That gives James some relative hope that both he and Davis can stay consistent with their health and performances throughout the 2023-24 season.j

Entering his 21st season, James expects to feel fully healed from his right foot injury and recharged from an off-season break. During both his successes and failures with delaying Father Time last season, James still averaged 28.9 points on 50% shooting along with 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Though Davis missed 20 consecutive games last season because of a stressed right foot from Dec. 18 through Jan. 24, Davis did not suffer any significant injuries for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs. Davis’ offensive performances fluctuated throughout the postseason, but the Lakers became encouraged with his defensive consistency regardless of his offensive production.

Because of that growth, a person familiar with James’ thinking said he believes Davis has what it takes to thrive in future playoff games. The rest of the Lakers’ roster appears uncertain. Following the trade deadline, the Lakers’ chemistry improved dramatically with a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell), an emerging young wing (Rui Hachimura) and an increasingly valuable two-way player (Austin Reaves). The Lakers also became an elite defensive team with Davis’ aggressiveness, Hachimura’s positional versatility, backcourt depth (Dennis Schroder, Lonnie Walker IV) and additional rebounding help (Jarred Vanderbilt).

Russell’s consistency, however, waned throughout the playoffs. Consider the difference in his production in the first round against Memphis (16.7 points, 43.5% overall, 37.2% from 3, 5.8 assists), in the second round against Golden State (14.7 points, 45.6% overall, 31% from 3, 4.2 assists) and in the Western Conference Finals against Denver (6.3 points on 32.3% overall, 13.3% from 3, 3.5 assists).

Los Angeles Lakers facing tough free agency decisions

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves the Lakers in an interesting position. How much should they invest in keeping their current roster? How aggressively should they pursue other options?

Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, has since said he considers it a “high priority” to maintain continuity. Pelinka added, however, “if there are opportunities to get even better, whether it’s through the draft or whether it’s through trades or free agency, we’re always looking to improve.”

The Lakers did not find any opportunities to package anything together with their No. 17 pick to move up higher in last week’s draft. Instead, the Lakers used their No. 17 pick on Indiana freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, who impressed the Lakers with his training habits, his playmaking and ability to defend various perimeter positions. The Lakers dealt their No. 47 pick and money to the Denver Nuggets for their No. 40 pick. They used that selection on Pepperdine sophomore forward Maxwell Lewis, who impressed the Lakers with his perimeter shooting and scoring.

Once free agency begins, the Lakers are expected to retain Reaves and Hachimura amid optimism about their growth and ability to match any offers they receive as restricted free agents. They are mostly pleased with Russell’s strengths than worried about his weaknesses, but the Lakers may become more deliberate with their willingness to spend on retaining him. It also remains to be seen how open the Lakers are with dealing Russell via sign-and-trade. Perhaps the Lakers could package their recent draft selections as well as expiring contracts for Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley.

LeBron James has expressed gratitude for how well the Laker’ current group performed last season following the trade deadline, especially during his 13-game absence. Though a person familiar with his thinking said James believes the current group can improve from last season with additional on-court time and off-season rest, James still hopes that the Lakers aggressively pursue moves that show they are prioritizing next season’s title chances than they are with preparing for the future.

It remains to be seen whether that happens. Even if James doesn’t receive his wish, however, those around him expect he will still fulfill his duties with improving his health, staying dominant and elevating his teammates to maximize the Lakers’ chances to win their 18th NBA championship.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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