LeBron James’ contract came back to bite him at the trade deadline

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Because of the structure of LeBron James’ Lakers contract, the Los Angeles team didn’t feel the pressure to acquiesce to his pleas as teams have before.

With the nature of today’s NBA, it’s hard not for the league’s biggest superstars to structure ideal championship teams around their own talent. Kevin Durant reportedly gave the Godfather-like nod to send James Harden to Philadelphia, but he certainly isn’t the first NBA superstar to dictate trade deadline moves. No one puts on a clinic quite like LeBron James, who has maximized his championship potential with three designed runs on three different franchises.

But LeBron’s latest commitment to L.A. may have prevented him from running business as usual for the Lakers at the deadline. The Lakers have been lackluster this season, and a trade deadline deal could have changed the fortune of this year’s team — but surprisingly, the Lakers didn’t pull the trigger. No one wanted Talen Horton-Tucker, and the team was steadfast in what they were willing to give up. Another chance at a ring is likely gone for the 37-year-old James, but it was his own contract that limited his leverage with the Lakers.

LeBron James’ Lakers contract may have kept him from leveraging more at the deadline

For the first time in James’ 19-year career, he doesn’t have a player option this season. James is locked in for two years at a cool $85.6 million, but he doesn’t have the flexibility to threaten free agency later in the 2022. That changes things.

“Maybe the Lakers front office feels like trading draft picks or taking on extra money isn’t going to save this team,” said NBA analyst Brian Windhorst. “Maybe they think that they owe themselves playing with a healthy roster for a little while before they break things up. And maybe, for the first time since LeBron was on a rookie contract back in the early aughts, he doesn’t have a player option in it. He commanded the Lakers and, unlike when he was in Cleveland when the Cavs always felt some pressure looming over their heads and felt like they had to acquiesce to him at the deadline, the Lakers didn’t feel that way.”

LeBron has long been criticized for chasing rings and bending teams at his will, but the strategy of keeping an escape hatch open has always worked for him. Without it, the Lakers acted in their best interest — which could mean saving up for a rebuild once LeBron is gone.

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