National Basketball Association
LeBron's leverage: Include Bronny guarantee in Lakers extension
National Basketball Association

LeBron's leverage: Include Bronny guarantee in Lakers extension

Updated Feb. 25, 2022 9:12 p.m. ET

By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer

The first time LeBron James indicated that he planned to test free agency, the NBA turned into an episode of "The Bachelor." Every team that thought it had a remote chance got all dolled up with the right coach, the right roster and enough spending money to afford not just LeBron but also one or two of his closest friends.

A lot has changed since then. James is 11 years older, for one, and no longer a guaranteed ticket to the Finals. NBA GMs have also learned that having LeBron on their roster means having him in their office, pushing for moves that serve the now over the later — with no guarantee that LeBron will be around later.

Which is why, when James announced over All-Star weekend in Cleveland that he was willing to leave the Lakers in order to play his final season with his son, Bronny, every GM in the league didn’t immediately start scheming how to make his franchise James’ next stop.


"The last thing I’m thinking about is Bron and Bron," an Eastern Conference GM said on his way back from Cleveland to rejoin his team. "I doubt it is something I would put a lot of thought into right now."

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There are several reasons for that. First, Bronny James is only a high school junior. Assuming the NBA collective bargaining agreement remains in place until its current expiration following the 2023-24 season, Bronny would not be eligible to play in the league until he’s one year removed from high school, which would be the 2024-25 season. Two, James has one more year remaining on his current deal with the Lakers and is eligible for a two-year extension this summer. Three, no one is convinced he’s truly looking to leave the Lakers.

Or, more accurately, everyone is convinced his announcement was more about establishing what he would want to stay.

"It’s a leverage play," a second Eastern Conference GM said. "I don’t see him wanting to leave. He’s out there in Hollywood now. That was what was behind the move out there in the first place."

The GM was referring to James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and signing with the Lakers in 2018 as a free agent. Unlike his first big move in free agency, in 2010 to the Miami Heat, or his return to Cleveland in 2014, the move to L.A. was not inspired by, first and foremost, championship interests.

James signed with the Heat, along with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, to infamously pursue, "not five, not six, not seven … championships," as he crowed at the Heat’s introductory celebration. His return to Cleveland four years later was ostensibly about healing the wound of how he left by bringing the Cavs "one trophy," as he wrote in his letter to their fans, via Sports Illustrated, announcing his return.

With both moves, though, there were prerequisites. He wouldn’t have gone to Miami if Wade hadn’t stayed and Bosh hadn’t joined them. He recruited sharpshooter Mike Miller. He made sure the Heat re-signed veteran Udonis Haslem. In Cleveland, the precondition was trading No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love.

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James made no such initial demands before signing with the Lakers, despite the fact that they were a long way from being title contenders when he joined them. They were, in fact, arguably one of the worst teams in the league, with five consecutive trips to the lottery. The move, it was generally believed, was made to facilitate James' post-playing business interests, specifically his entertainment development and video production company, SpringHill.

After a year of missing the playoffs, though, James made it clear that he was unhappy with the team's young roster, and the Lakers dealt a boatload of their players to the New Orleans Pelicans for All-Star big man — and James' fellow Klutch Agency client — Anthony Davis. That resulted in yet another championship, followed by yet another disappointing season in which the Lakers had to navigate the play-in tournament to make the playoffs and were then bounced by the Phoenix Suns in the first round. That led to another push for a roster makeover, leading to the acquisition of All-Star guard Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards.

This move obviously hasn’t proven to be as fruitful as the Davis one, with the Lakers currently sitting ninth in the Western Conference and, according to FOX Bet, having the 12th-best odds of winning this year’s title, with five teams in the West — Suns, Warriors, Jazz, Grizzlies and Nuggets — more favored.

Reports are that James is upset the Lakers didn’t make a move at the trade deadline to improve their chances, prompting a post on social media complimenting Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead for having a win-now approach. James also made a point of praising Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti for his ability to draft top talent, interpreted by some as a shot at Lakers GM Rob Pelinka for not only failing to make a move at the deadline but also saying that James signed off on standing pat.

James’ agent, Rich Paul, has refuted reports that James is unhappy with the Lakers’ inactivity or Pelinka, but the GMs I spoke to aren’t buying it.

"I heard that he was trying to get Sam Presti in there to replace Rob," the second Eastern Conference GM said. "I don’t see that happening, but I could see him trying to get Pelinka out of there."

Which is exactly the kind of pressure that has GMs around the league uneasy about the prospect of angling to sign Bronny in order to get LeBron. "The dynamic of managing LeBron alone is a thing," the first GM said. "Could you imagine managing him while trying to manage his son?"

The second GM echoed that sentiment. 

"I can’t speak for all the other teams, but to plan for a 39-year-old and taking on his son, who I hear is just decent, to make moves for all that, I don’t see it," he said. "LeBron is still good, but he can’t carry you anymore. The only way I could see doing it is if you needed the box office draw."

Which, especially for small-market teams, would be quite the bonanza, one NBA team owner said. Hosting the last year of LeBron’s career "would be an automatic sell-out of every game," the owner said. "If Minnesota signed him, their gate would double. … Sponsorships would go up, and so would TV ratings. It would be temporary, though, so I’m not sure how many teams would want to deal with … accommodating all the requests [from LeBron]."

And how much does James really want to spend a year in Minnesota or Charlotte or Sacramento just to launch Bronny’s NBA career? It’s the timing of James' expressing his intention to play his last year with Bronny that makes the GMs I spoke to believe he is talking to an audience of one: Lakers governor Jeanie Buss.

It’s not as if teams have to begin plotting now how to be in position to draft Bronny — the highest estimations right now project him as, at best, a second-round pick — or to create enough salary-cap room to sign his dad, since James said his salary would not be a priority.

The only value to announcing last weekend his intentions for two-plus years down the road is that 1) he could do it in Cleveland and dangle the prospect of returning a third time to a home crowd, and 2) it alerts the Lakers and their fans of the asking price for him to sign that two-year extension this summer: a guarantee that when the time arrives, they will sign Bronny.

"The promise to play with Bronny," the second GM said, "is bigger for him than any championship now."

And the promise to do that without having to move would be the dream.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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