LeBron James’ future is Lakers’ biggest offseason question, but it’s far from the only one

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Roughly 14 hours after LeBron James hinted at retirement to close out his final postgame news conference, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said Tuesday that the organization will give its 38-year-old superstar the space he deserves to make a decision about his future.

“We’ll look forward to those conversations when the time is right,” Pelinka said at the Lakers’ exit interviews. “But I will say this: LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who’s ever played. And when you do that, you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more. … Our job as the Lakers organization is to support any player on our team if they reach a career inflection point. … Obviously, our hope would be that his career continues, but we want to again just give him the time.”

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, who addressed the media alongside Pelinka, shared a similar message.

“Coming off a tough loss like that, with the work we’ve put in this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night too,” Ham joked to lighten the mood. “But in all honesty and seriousness, LeBron has earned the right to do whatever he wants to do, make whatever choice.”

James’ comments appeared to catch both of the Lakers’ key decision-makers off guard based on their respective responses. When discussing the future, they continued to reference James as part of it.

James was the only player to not take part in an exit interview with the Lakers’ decision-makers on the day after their season-ending 115-113 Game 4 loss to the Denver Nuggets. James will convene with Pelinka and Ham at a later date. James and Anthony Davis, who both gave postgame news conferences after Monday’s defeat, were the only two Lakers among the primary roster players to not address the media on Tuesday.

With the official offseason about a month away, Los Angeles essentially has two paths forward: running it back with most of this group or pursuing a third star at the expense of their depth, as they did two offseasons ago when they flipped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and a first-round pick for Russell Westbrook. Kuzma shared his skepticism on Twitter that the Lakers will keep this group together.

But based on the messaging at their exit interviews, the Lakers are leaning toward the former strategy — at least publicly.

Pelinka called this “a season of advancement and growth” and re-emphasized his post-trade-deadline message that the organization would rather keep this group together and establish continuity.

“I would say this resoundingly clear: Our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together,” Pelinka said. “And I think we saw incredible growth and achievement by Rui (Hachimura), Austin (Reaves). I could go down the list: (Jarred Vanderbilt), (D’Angelo Russell). We have a lot of great young players, and we want to do our best to fit the puzzle together.”

The Lakers only have three players officially under contract for next season: James ($46.9 million), Davis ($40.6 million) and 2022 second-round pick Max Christie ($1.7 million). The Lakers are expected to guarantee the contract of Vanderbilt ($4.7 million) by June 30, bringing that total to four. They also have the No. 17 and 47 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft.

The rest of the roster either has a team option (Malik Beasley), a non-guaranteed contract (Mo Bamba) or is a free agent. The Lakers have until June 29 to decide if they want to pick up Beasley’s $16.5 million team option and guarantee Bamba’s $10.3 million contract.

The Lakers will have access to their non-taxpayer midlevel exception, projected to be about $12.2 million, but if they use more than $5 million of it, they’d likely exceed the first luxury-tax band and thus be subjected to a hard cap, depending on the rest of their moves. They also have their projected $4.5 million biannual exception available to use, but that would hard-cap them. If the Lakers want to use draft picks in a trade, they can use their 2023 first-round pick — officially consummating the trade on or after draft night — and then either their 2029 or 2030 first-round pick.

Pelinka said the organization’s focus remains building the best possible roster around its two superstars, a formula that helped the Lakers win a championship in 2020 and make a Western Conference finals appearance this season.

“LeBron and AD as two pillars is, to us, an unmatched combination that we’ll continue to lean into and build around,” Pelinka said. “… We’re proud of that combination of superstars and want to continue to invest in that and invest in advancing the growth we had this year into next season.”

James’ future looms over the Lakers’ offseason. His decision, of course, alters the trajectory of the franchise. The Lakers aren’t contenders next season if James isn’t on the roster. (He is legally eligible to be traded for another superstar or a monster haul, though if he’s retiring, he wouldn’t play for his new team in that scenario, either.)

When asked about James’ comments from the night before, his teammates responded with varying levels of surprise while also supporting his right to determine his future.

“I can’t see that,” Dennis Schröder said. “I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe it’s personnel, whatever. But I mean, to retire and the last game in the playoffs you make 40, 10 and nine, I think you still got juice, you know, to play a couple more years. So whatever he decides, you know, he played for 20 years, we’re gonna support him. I’m gonna support him. And hopefully, he’s gonna come back.”

“It’d be crazy to see him away from the game, especially when I feel like he has a lot more in the tank,” Russell said.

“I feel like that’s human nature to be his age and be playing at the level that he’s playing at putting his body through that much work,” Troy Brown Jr. said. “I mean, I don’t blame him for feeling that way. Personally, for me, I feel like because of his love of the game, he will continue to play.”

Assuming James remains a Laker and they follow Pelinka’s intentions to keep the current team together, restricted free agents Reaves and Hachimura are the Lakers’ top priorities this offseason. Los Angeles can match any outside offer either player receives from another team to retain them. As The Athletic reported Tuesday, the Lakers intend to keep both players this summer, even if it means matching their respective maximum offer sheets, according to multiple team sources who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Because Reaves initially signed a two-year minimum contract, the maximum the Lakers can offer him is a four-year, $50.8 million contract (though some salary projections have that closer to $53 million to $55 million depending on the specific level of the cap). He is expected to draw interest and potential offer sheets from several teams with cap space this summer, according to multiple team and league sources not authorized to speak publicly about the situation. Other teams can offer Reaves a contract up to four years and a projected $98.7 million, but the Lakers can match those offers.


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Reaves made his preference of staying in Los Angeles known when asked about his free agency.

“I want to be here,” Reaves said. “It feels like home to me in a sense. Obviously, it’s a lot different than my actual home. It’s a little bigger, a lot more people, worse traffic. But I told somebody a couple of months ago that it feels like a home for me. Basically, the way the fans support me, the players coach and the staff, front office, this is definitely somewhere I want to be, but we’ll see what happens.”

Pelinka acknowledged he’s limited in discussing Reaves’ free agency but praised the sophomore guard’s growth and postseason performance.

“Austin, in particular, had an incredible year,” Pelinka said. “I think defines really what’s at the heart of playing for the Lakers. He’s a selfless, team-first guy. He lives in the gym. He loves the big moment. He’s been able to meet the big moment. I think he’s a guy that, regardless of what his deal is, I don’t think it’s gonna change him as a person. And we’ll hang our hat on guys like that that compete, love the game, love their teammates. I think we’re proud to have him as a part of this franchise.”

As for Hachimura, the Lakers are expected to extend him a $7.7 million qualifying offer by June 29, making him a restricted free agent. Hachimura is also expected to have a strong market after his impressive playoff performance. The Lakers can also match any offer from another team.

The next decision for the Lakers to make involves Russell, acquired as part of L.A.’s trade-deadline makeover. Russell made $31.4 million this season and is eligible to sign a two-year, $67.6 million (projected) contract extension up until June 30. If the two sides don’t agree to an extension by then, which appears likely, Russell becomes a free agent.

The obvious question: Can the Lakers agree to such a contract after Russell’s notable struggles against Denver in the Western Conference finals? Russell was a shell of himself, to put it kindly. For the series, he averaged 6.3 points on 32.3 percent shooting, and L.A. was outscored by 47 points in his 94 minutes. As his offense faltered, he was being targeted defensively by Denver’s buzz saw of an offense.

Russell chalked up his lackluster performance to simply missing shots.

“I really can’t really complain about anything besides the ball going in when I wanted it to,” Russell said.

Russell, drafted second overall by the Lakers in the 2015 draft, labeled his second stint with the team a “complete success.” He also expressed confidence in the state of his game as he (likely) enters free agency.

“At this point in your career, to be honest, I feel like you’re you,” Russell said. “And I’m nice. I ain’t worried about my game. I know who I am as a player. I know what I’m capable of. I can win games, I can be better than your point guard. I can be better than your shooting guard.”

Russell also addressed Ham’s decision to move him to the bench in Game 4 for the first time.

“I mean, it was tough,” Russell said. “It was tough to agree with it, obviously. … I knew that was where you have to be professional.”

If the Lakers decide not to re-sign Russell, or if the price gets too rich, they could use their full non-taxpayer midlevel exception or the smaller taxpayer midlevel exception on one or two players in attempt to replace him.

The other three notable free agents for Los Angeles this summer are Schröder, Brown and Lonnie Walker IV, who all started at various points of the season and played key roles off the bench in the postseason.

The Lakers possess non-Bird rights for the three players, meaning they can only offer them a maximum of 120 percent of what they made last season ($3.8 million for Schröder and Brown; $7.8 million for Walker) without dipping into their other exceptions. In all likelihood, Schröder will get a higher offer than that from a rival team given how essential he was to the Lakers, particularly on the defensive end.

One of the quieter subplots of the Lakers’ offseason is that it will feature another significant superstar decision: Davis is eligible to sign a three-year, $167.5 million max extension starting Aug. 4 — nearly a month after the Lakers will have their team largely settled, in theory.

The more players the Lakers bring back, the more the luxury tax — along with the new “second apron” that penalizes teams for spending $17.5 million over the luxury-tax line — and repeater penalties could potentially come into play. Los Angeles has been above the luxury-tax threshold for three straight seasons. To avoid exceeding the tax, the Lakers would need to waive Bamba and decline Beasley’s option if they re-sign Reaves, Hachimura, Russell and Walker.

If the Lakers pivot and choose to pursue another superstar using cap space, they can, in theory, clear upwards of $30 million to $35 million in room, but it would likely require renouncing the rights of Hachimura, Russell and Walker, waiving Vanderbilt and Bamba, declining Beasley’s option and trading Christie and their 2023 first-round pick. Reaves’ $2.2 million cap hold is basically the same as a minimum slot (around $2 million), meaning the Lakers can retain him as they clear space, then match any offer by another team.

The two most prominent names the Lakers will be linked to this summer are Kyrie Irving (for basically the third time) and Trae Young, about whom the team has had internal discussions. Irving is a free agent, and while the Mavericks are confident in re-signing him, he could instead choose to sign with the Lakers using the cap space they clear. The Lakers could also acquire Irving via sign-and-trade, which would hard-cap the Lakers at $169.5 million and require Dallas’ cooperation to recover some players for Irving’s departure. In that case, the Lakers must either guarantee Bamba’s contract and exercise Beasley’s team option or have Russell agree to a complex sign-and-trade of his own to go to Dallas (like he did in 2019 with Brooklyn and Golden State).

Regardless of the approach the Lakers ultimately take — and with the caveat of James’ decision being the main factor — the Lakers enter the offseason optimistic that this season was a stepping stone for a group that had fewer than 40 games together between the regular season and playoffs. Next season, with some upgrades around the margins, a training camp together and, ideally, two of the best players in the world on the roster, the Lakers are hopeful they can challenge for banner No. 18.

“I think there are components on our roster that clearly worked,” Pelinka said. “… We were on the doorstep of potentially the NBA Finals, and in the NBA Finals, anything could happen. So I think there’s proof in concept that this was a really good team.

“But again, we’re not going to rest on our laurels if there’s opportunities to get even better. Whether it’s through the draft, whether it’s through trades or free agency, we’re always looking to improve. But we have a core that is highly successful. And that’s a good starting point.”

(Top photo: Harry How / Getty Images)

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