Plaschke: LeBron James' new contract guarantees one thing — more Lakers mediocrity

Lakers forward LeBron James takes a dive against the Washington Wizards on March 11 at Crypto.com Arena. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)
Two more guaranteed years of LeBron James?
Two more years of history, two more years of glamour, two more years of buzz.
Two more years of injury reports, two more years of bad drama, two more years of embarrassing mediocrity.
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So Lakers fans, what's your take on this?
Those who like their basketball with bells and whistles will react with jubilation to the news of James' new contract on Wednesday.
But if you like it with championships, you will react with a sigh.
I think I'll just scream.
Arguably the greatest player in basketball history, James will undoubtedly make the league's biggest headlines this season as he overtakes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer. There was a time when building on the last year of their contract with a two-year extension worth $97.1 million would have been a brilliant decision for a title-battling team.
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Now is not that time and this is not that place.
An organization in need of a massive makeover has just signed up for a flashy iteration. A franchise that lacks youth and depth has just tied its fortunes to a man who will play his last guaranteed season at age 39.
James will play for the Lakers this season under the terms of his current contract and is guaranteed to play here next season in the first year of overtime and could then potentially play here in the 2024/25 season as there is a player option in the contract. So, two years guaranteed, with the possibility of a third year, and it's all too much.
A team that must build for the future remains stuck in the past, forgoing substance for sizzle and clinging to an aging star even as the sky crumbles around them.
Supporters of James' new contract will say it pushes the Lakers to win now. With James as the cornerstone, the Lakers could now feel the freedom to loosen the first-round draft picks of 2027 and 2029 and strike a deal for a veteran scorer. With no cap berth in the near future, they could also be inspired to take back the kind of bad contract that's often required in an NBA trade.
Bottom line, that extension could mean yes, hallelujah, the Lakers can now trade Russell Westbrook.
But think for a moment what this extension requires.
It is initially believed that James is still capable of leading a team to a season-long championship. The truth is he isn't.
In his three full seasons with the Lakers — not counting the abridged bubble championship in 2020 — James has led his group to exactly zero playoff series wins and just one playoff appearance. He can't do it alone anymore, and he can't do it with demure Anthony Davis anymore, and now the Lakers won't be able to bring him another superstar while he's here.
The extension also assumes that James will be healthy enough to be the Lakers' full-time leader during the regular season. The painful reality is that he won't.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, from left, salutes LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony as he is introduced prior to a preseason game against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 12, 2021.
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In those three full seasons, he averaged 52 games. That means he misses an average of 30 games a year. That's more than two missed months a year. But they give him an even longer contract? How does that make sense?
Yes, James was timeless, tough and incredible last season, averaging 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists. But if an athlete's most important skill is availability, they've failed once again.
Perhaps the biggest argument against extending James is what could have happened if he had been allowed to run after this season when his contract expired.
If James had left, the Lakers could have entered the 2023-24 season with a more than $70 million cap rank. That would be enough to grab one Superstar while also setting the stage for another the following year. This is now a remodel.
Instead, the Lakers, unsurprisingly, opted to give the world's greatest sports star a tighter grip on the flabby shoulders in a move that seemed more about his fame than his game.
It's like the Lakers said, OK, we're going to be mediocre for the next few seasons anyway, so why not keep at least the one player that makes us watchable?
Instead of starting the hard work of becoming great again, they decided to settle for being just an attraction again. That may be the Hollywood way, but contrary to popular belief, it was never the Lakers way.
And by the way, don't you dare compare that to Kobe Bryant's two-year, $48 million contract, which wore his damaged physique to the end of his Lakers career. In this city, LeBron James is not Kobe Bryant and never will be.
Despite initial criticism in this area, Bryant's deal proved a goodbye, while James hadn't been a Laker long enough or connected to the community enough to ever be considered a true Lakers icon.
Nonetheless, this expansion undoubtedly proves that James shares a trait with previous Lakers stars. James apparently runs the team, which could be problematic if he reaches the player options portion of his contract before the 2024 season.
Remember when James told the Athletic he wanted to play in the NBA with his son Bronny? Aside from putting undue pressure on his son, who is considered a top-50 prospect to start his senior season at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High, James' comments could also put the same heat on the Lakers to draft the son if he is eligible now in two years or risk losing his father.
Two more guaranteed years of LeBron James?
A move that would normally have brought out the purple and gold flags felt like raising a white one instead.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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