LeBron’s hefty Lakers expansion is all about winning, just not winning games

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By extending his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James has likely committed himself to a level of short-term professional mediocrity that seems counterintuitive for an aspiring superstar of all time bent on overtaking Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time.

We know that championships are the coin of the empire for the few basketball kings, like King James, who are extraordinary enough to contend for the nickname Greatest Of All Time. And LA, as we also know, is clearly ill-equipped to give their newly-enhanced superstar a shot at another ring this year, or in the additional year or two that he’ll now be continuing as a Laker.

But the extension – which bans LeBron for at least an additional year in Los Angeles through the 2023-24 season and has been confirmed to CBS Sports by sources including that option for third-year players for 2024-25 – fits the intriguing venue perfectly LeBron has achieved both in his career: both a great end of the road basking in the quality of life and personal benefits that life in Los Angeles brings, and a shrewd strategic nod to his career goal, Jordan in the world defeat public eye.

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

Let’s start with the personal.

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

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

Again, it’s a quality of life factor that’s much more about luck than competitiveness, and a long-professed goal of LeBron that illuminates its priorities – happiness over victory, in its most obvious but true form.

LeBron likes LA. He likes his life there. He wants to play in the league with his son. And this deal offers him all of that, and no, Lakers fans — in no way — does this extension mean LeBron’s belief that the Lakers can, or even will, win championships in the next two or three years. They almost certainly won’t. They are neither well constructed nor well positioned. And that probably won’t change.

This brings us to the second point and the reminder that people are complicated and that two things can be true at the same time. In this case, that LeBron puts his quality of life and family above his career, and that staying in LA also has long-term strategic benefits for his lifelong obsession with convincing the world that he’s the GOAT.

GOAT debates are fun, interesting, and worth our time, although former athletes pretend they hate such conversations. At least privately, they like it just as much as the rest of us.) But contrary to how these debates rage on, there’s no safe calculation before deciding Jordan > LeBron, or LeBron > Jordan, or Steph > LeBron, or Kareem > Everyone.

Determining the greatest NBA player of all time is more art than science. It’s philosophy, not vote counting. It’s more alchemy than a safe checklist.

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

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

And for LeBron, who is just 1,326 points from overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time top scorer, this record is a key way to do so. LeBron should pass Kareem next season, but this extension ensures that 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 improver, call it what you will — than doing it anywhere else. The purple and gold is iconic, and LeBron has ensured he will make history dressed in the colors most likely to reflect the power and impact of point #38,388.

Consider how many of the greatest athletes of all time have been Lakers. These superstars were larger than life, and their names rolled off their tongues more like myths than men: Kareem. Magic. kobe Shaq. The logo. LeBron fits into the pantheon of such players.

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

Two rings are out of range. Kareem’s record is not. So might as well do it as a Laker.

If that seems made-up and half-baked, well I can tell you it’s because of how many around LeBron think. He’s as much a company as he is a player now, and his brand’s narrative and legacy are obsessed for those charged with the task of protecting it.

So this Lakers deal isn’t about at least not winning games. It’s about – as unlikely as it may sound – the start of the extended LeBron James farewell tour.

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