Fri. Sep 22nd, 2023

In extending his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James has likely committed to a level of short-term professional mediocrity that seems counterintuitive for an all-time ambitious superstar hellbent on passing Michael Jordan as the game’s greatest ever player.

Championships, we know, are the coin of the realm for the few basketball royalty like King James exceptional enough to vie for the Greatest Of All Time moniker. And LA, we also know, is clearly ill-equipped to provide their newly extended superstar a shot at another ring this year, or in the one or two additional years in which he’ll now continue as a Laker.

But the extension — which locks LeBron into Los Angeles at least an extra year, through the 2023-24 season, and which sources confirmed to CBS Sports includes that third-year player option for 2024-25 — fits perfectly with the fascinating place LeBron has reached in his career: Both an end-of-the-road great basking in the quality of life and personal advantages that come with life in Los Angeles, and a sly strategic wink to his career-long goal of besting Jordan in the public eye.

The strategy behind this new deal is equal parts personal over the professional and long-term branding, and both point to a subtler, older version of James. He’s exchanged “not two, not three, not four” for future quality NBA time with his son, and the need to collect rings in the GOAT chase for something now more interesting and subtle.

Let’s start with the personal.

Those within the Lakers organization never doubted this would happen, pointing to the fact that, well, LeBron likes his life in Los Angeles. He’s happy there. He’s content. And while, yes, Russell Westbrook is the totem of the troubles plaguing the basketball side of things, there is life beyond work, something new and fascinating in one of the most driven and ambitious players in NBA history.

That there is life beyond work is true for me. True for you. True for the richest and poorest and most and least driven among us. This deal — the player option being key here — allows LeBron James to extricate himself from the Lakers in the summer of 2024 if, as expected, his oldest son Bronny James enters the NBA Draft.

That, too, is a quality of life factor that is much more about happiness than competitiveness, and a long-stated LeBron goal that sheds a light on his priorities — happiness over winning, at its most blatant but true.

LeBron likes LA. He likes his life there. He wants to play in the league with his son. And this deal affords him all of that and, no, Lakers fans — in no way whatsoever — does this extension signify LeBron’s belief that the Lakers can or even will win championships over the next two or three years. They almost certainly won’t. They’re not well-constructed nor well-positioned. And that’s not likely to change.

Which brings us to the second point, and the reminder that human beings are complicated, and that two things can be true at once. In this case, that LeBron is prioritizing his quality of life and family over his career, and that staying in LA also has long-term strategic benefits to his lifelong obsession of convincing the world he’s the GOAT.

GOAT debates are fun, and interesting, and worth our time, despite former athletes pretending they hate such talk. Iin private, at least, they tend to like it as much as the rest of us.) But contrary to how these debates tend to rage on, there isn’t some sure-thing calculus before deciding Jordan > LeBron, or LeBron > Jordan, or Steph > LeBron, or Kareem > all of them.

Deciding the NBA’s greatest of all time player is more art than science. It’s philosophy, not vote counting. It’s alchemy rather than some sure-thing checklist.

LeBron knows this. He knows he has to be historically remarkable, and he’s well on his way to checking off the final few boxes. He knows he needs to win a lot of championships, and, yes, Jordan fans, four is enough. But he also understands there are pop culture factors (“Be Like Mike” sure didn’t hurt Jordan) and other accomplishments along the way that can change public opinion. 

You have to win games and rings, sure, but you have to win hearts and minds too.

And for LeBron, who is just 1,326 points away from passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, that record is one key way to do that. LeBron should pass Kareem next season, but this extension ensures neither injury nor an off-year will prevent him from doing so as a Laker.

Think about it. Setting that mark as a Los Angeles Laker has a lot more staying power — a brand impact, a wow factor, a long-term Q-rating enhancer, call it what you want — than doing so anywhere else. The purple and gold is iconic, and LeBron has ensured he’ll make history clad in the colors most likely to increase the power and effect of point no. 38,388.

Consider how many of the sport’s all-time greats were Lakers. These superstars were larger than life, and their names roll off the tongue more like myths than men: Kareem. Magic. Kobe. Shaq. The Logo. LeBron fits in the pantheon of such players.

Being the all-time leading scorer is the focus now for LeBron, because that record is at least as important in the long run as, say, going to Cleveland for a third time and maybe — big-time maybe — winning a fifth championship. 

Two rings are out of reach. Kareem’s record isn’t. So might as well do it as a Laker.

If that seems over thought and half-baked, well, I can tell you it’s how many close to LeBron think. He’s a corporation now as much as a player, and his brand’s narrative and legacy are matters of obsession for those charged with the task of protecting it.

So this Lakers deal isn’t about winning, well, at least not games. It’s about — however improbable it may sound — the beginning of the extended LeBron James farewell tour.

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