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LeBron James' champagne days with Lakers are probably over, so what does his future hold?

·5 min read
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LeBron James’ longevity plus production make him a rarity.

James had a fantastic season: 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks and shot 52.4% from the field and 35.9% on 3-pointers.

It was a great year for a player of any age, and it’s impossible to find a better season for a player who turned 37 years old and was in his 19th season.

He challenged for the scoring title but didn’t end up with enough games played to qualify. Still, no player – no matter how many games played let alone 50-plus – has averaged 30 or more points at that age.

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James likely will extend his league-record All-NBA selections to 18 – three more than Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

Lakers forward LeBron James (6) challenged for the NBA scoring title, a rare feat for a player in his 19th season.
Lakers forward LeBron James (6) challenged for the NBA scoring title, a rare feat for a player in his 19th season.

James’ season officially ended last week when he played his final games of the season before the Lakers ruled him out for the final two games with a sprained left ankle. The Lakers’ season ended on Sunday, a 146-141 overtime win against the Denver Nuggets in a disappointing season that concluded with no postseason appearance – the second time in James’ four seasons with the Lakers that they didn’t make the playoffs.

James’ Lakers tenure has been uneven – no playoffs, championship, first-round exit, no playoffs.

What’s next for James?

James has one year and $44.4 million left on his contract, taking him through the 2022-23 season. He can become a free agent following next season or he can sign a two-year extension this summer.

Without question, James can still be a pivotal player on a championship-quality team, and there’s no doubt James still wants to win.

“I appreciate it and love y’all love!” James tweeted after it was announced his season was over. “Wish it was done in winning fashion though! Gave everything I had to this season when I was on the floor! See y’all again in the fall.”

But how much can he win with the Lakers next season, and will it be good enough for James just to have an OK team that isn’t a title contender at this point in his career?

There are multiple answers.

Championships are always better than no championships. A player prefers to play on a team that can contend, and James wants the Lakers to re-tool and improve the roster. That will be difficult given the lack of roster flexibility within the salary cap (James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis will eat up $129.45 million next season), and while James had a great season in 2020-21 and 2021-22, he also missed a third of the games in both seasons. His durability is no longer a given.

Most of the Lakers' salary cap next season will be tied up in Anthony Davis (left), Russell Westbrook (center) and LeBron James (right).
Most of the Lakers' salary cap next season will be tied up in Anthony Davis (left), Russell Westbrook (center) and LeBron James (right).

James also late in the season – when the Lakers postseason chances were dwindling – indicated he was “having the time of his life right now. The game’s such a beautiful thing."

He wasn’t worried about narratives about himself or the Lakers. “None of that stuff matters to be. I’m having a blast playing the game of basketball," he said.

From those comments, it appears he can be content as long as the losing isn’t too bad. James has four titles, four Finals MVPs, four MVPs, NBA records in All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections, is the only player with 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists and should pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer next season.

Not winning another title won’t do anything to his legacy. He’s in the conversation as the game’s greatest player of all-time. As he has suggested previously, he doesn’t believe he has anything to prove.

So James has at least one more season with the Lakers. Will there be more than one more? You can try to read into what James has said or hasn’t said or what he has done or hasn’t done in the past to find answers. There is an entire cottage industry based on reading James’ tea leaves. Even then, the clues can be misleading.

When James realized his teams in Cleveland and Miami exhausted their championship possibilities, he bolted – for a team where he thought he could win a title. What if next season mirrors the end of his team in Cleveland 1.0, Miami and Cleveland 2.0?

Sure, James could leave. But not all circumstances are equal. By all accounts, James is happy living in Southern California. A major part of his non-basketball business operations are there, and lifestyle is an important factor in where anyone works. There are worse things than making $45 million a year, living in L.A. and playing for a mediocre basketball team.

And yet, what if there’s a pull to win another title? Could he leave the Lakers for another team? Could he sign with Phoenix – a short flight to and from Los Angeles – on a minimum deal to try and win a title with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the Suns? Seems unlikely, but you never know.

James recently said on his HBO show “The Shop” he would like to play alongside Steph Curry and reiterated his wish to play alongside his son Bronny James, who will be draft eligible in 2024.

There are multiple possibilities ahead, and James probably doesn’t even know what his basketball career looks like two, three years down the road. But he says enough to keep a range of possibilities open and stoke intrigue.

James redefined free agency, starting with his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010 and Miami for Cleveland in 2014 and Cleveland for Los Angeles in 2018.

Late in his career, nearing 40 years old, James' future will again impact the NBA with his career choice.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James, Lakers: Title chances fading, can star be content in LA?