The Los Angeles Lakers have a problem. It’s one that the organization has faced before. There’s never an elegant solution to this problem, and in this case, the magnitude of the decision could lead to phenomenal success or profound disappointment. Typical mediocrity isn’t in the cards when LeBron James is involved.

On Wednesday, James and the Lakers agreed to a two-year, $97.1 million extension, nearly making him the highest-paid player in the league at age 37. The deal also has a third-year option that could extend his contract past his 40th birthday. The projected yearly payout represents a pay raise for James, who signed a four-year deal worth $154 million in 2018.

Though James could not secure a no-trade clause, his reputation alone will keep him in Los Angeles for as long as he deems fit. This is the crux of the team’s problem. It is impossible for the Lakers to turn down one of the greatest NBA players of all time, but accepting his terms at his advanced age may cripple their championship pursuit for years to come. It’s the problem of the aging superstar.

An Unwanted Parallel

In 2014, the Lakers had a similar issue with 35-year-old Kobe Bryant, who was coming off an injury in the 2013-14 season which limited him to just six appearances. Unwilling to part with their superstar, the Lakers signed Bryant for two years and $48.5 million. He only appeared in 35 games the following season and never regained the level of performance that helped the team win back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Instead, the Lakers compiled a 38-126 record across two seasons before Bryant retired in 2016. The team didn’t finish above .500 again until 2019.

It’s true that James’ situation with the Lakers isn’t identical to Bryant’s. While Bryant was already in the process of regressing before he signed his contract, James remains a dominant force when he’s on the floor. Like Bryant, however, James has had trouble staying healthy in recent years. Despite posting consistently high numbers, he has not appeared in more than 70 regular season games since 2018.

Following his latest contract, the Lakers also have far more money invested in James, nearly twice as much as Bryant at a similar point. If the 2022-23 season were to begin today, salaries for James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis would account for more than 100% of the team’s cap space. All three stars underwhelmed in one form or another last season, and James’ deal nearly ensures that Westbrook will be traded in the near future.

A Tale Of Two Lakers Teams

Sometimes, paying aging superstars has proved to be a winning decision for the Lakers. In the late 1980s, the team paid Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearly as well as younger star Magic Johnson and the duo won three championships together between 1985 and 1988. Though he wasn’t in his prime, the team still had the components necessary to win.

But the circumstances surrounding James’ contract more closely resemble those of Bryant than of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers are not in the midst of a dynastic run. They couldn’t play well enough last season to make the playoffs, and beyond a championship win in the bubble in 2020, they’ve largely been written off as a dysfunctional organization with underwhelming talent.

As it stands, the Lakers missed the playoffs last season, and their biggest move of the offseason so far has been to give their leader a pay raise. Reports suggest that James wants to stick around long enough to play on the same team as his son, 17-year-old Bronny James. While he waits, his team will have to find a way to contend with limited pieces.

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