What Golden State’s LeBron bid signals for the Warriors and Lakers moving forward

  • Brian Windhorst, ESPN Senior WriterFeb 22, 2024, 08:00 AM ET

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    • ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
    • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
    • Author of two books

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title four years ago. Since then, they have a regular-season record of 148-144.

The Golden State Warriors won the NBA title two years ago. Since then, they have a regular-season record of 71-64.

In his first five full seasons as a Laker, LeBron James has led Los Angeles to six playoff series wins. In the five years prior, he led his teams to 16 series wins.

Over the past four postseasons, Stephen Curry and the Warriors have won five series. The four years before that, Curry led them to 14 series wins.

These facts make last week’s story by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne on Golden State reaching out to the Lakers about a possible James trade more telling. The move implied the Warriors weren’t sure they had enough for another championship run and suspected James might not think the Lakers did either.

It was just another sign that both teams as currently constructed are probably past their primes. They’ve been, if put charitably, slightly above-average performers for some time now. When looking at the Western Conference standings — where the Lakers are in ninth place and the Warriors in 10th — you could even deem them also-rans.

But when it comes to the Lakers and the Warriors, it can be easy to push off considering the downside and long odds. James and Curry have done it before and seem to always believe they can do it again, whether or not reality agrees.

So both teams grind on with their matchup Thursday in San Francisco, a game James will miss as he deals with tendinopathy in his left ankle, as they scramble to avoid a potential clash in April’s play-in tournament.

Such a matchup would be tantalizing in a one-game elimination situation. With huge offseason stakes and the precious late stages of Curry’s and James’ careers, it would be the biggest play-in game since … the last time they faced off in the play-in three years ago.

The Lakers stood pat at the trade deadline, at the risk of irritating James, in part because they wanted to protect their trade options for the summer. By June, the Lakers will be permitted to trade up to three first-round picks and some of their players’ contracts will be a season shorter — making them more attractive in potential deals. There are already some expectations, no matter how the season might end, the Lakers could try to trade for a big-name player.

Of course, there’s also James’ situation. For the first time since 2018, he has the option to become an unrestricted free agent. Though he has made it clear he prefers to stay in L.A. and the Lakers could give him another nine-figure deal that would carry him into his 40s, he has repeatedly suggested he will leave his options open.

The Warriors are also facing some tough decisions. Head coach Steve Kerr and veteran guards Klay Thompson and Chris Paul can be free agents this summer, and third-year forward Jonathan Kuminga, in the midst of a breakout season, is extension eligible. The Warriors, after paying $350 million in the combination of salary and luxury tax last season and nearly $400 million this season, are hinting at finally trying to reduce costs. Owner Joe Lacob said on “The TK Show” podcast last week that the team has plans to exit the tax entirely by next season, which leaves the legacy roster in some question.

These two big-market, big-brand teams laden with future Hall of Famers remain at the center of the NBA’s consciousness. They cannot be disregarded because of their talent, both having pulled upsets in the playoffs last season.

In their only meeting so far this season on Jan. 27 at Chase Center, they staged one of the best games the league has seen this year. And one of the more memorable games in the long-running James-Curry rivalry.

The Lakers won 145-144 in double overtime. Curry ripped his jersey in frustration walking off the floor after his 46 points weren’t enough. James, as is his custom, looked at it with perspective, imagining telling his future grandchildren about his 36-point, 20-rebound, 12-assist triple-double, including the winning free throw.

“Hopefully I can be cool when my grandkids [are] at that point,” said James, referring to going head-to-head with Curry, who James knows is popular with younger fans.

“You look forward to the battles,” Curry said after the game, “but you also appreciate the mutual respect of what it takes to keep doing what you’re doing at this level.”

They aren’t the only ones who appreciate it.

The game was one of the highest-rated non-Christmas regular-season games over the past five years, averaging four million viewers and peaking with 5.24 million, per Nielsen.

Last spring, Game 1 of the Laker-Warriors playoff series drew 7.3 million viewers, the NBA playoffs’ largest early-round cable audience in 11 years.

The two teams are exiting the All-Star break tied in the loss column with three regular-season games left against each other, making the matchups doubly important and leaving the potentially valuable tiebreaker uncertain.

This isn’t the same era as when Curry and James met in four straight NBA Finals, but neither have given up on the grind of it. Thanks to an offensive tear, the Lakers have won eight of their past 11 games while averaging 126 points in that stretch. That’s their most prolific offensive performance over an 11-game span since the “Showtime” Lakers in 1987, per ESPN Stats & Information.

The Warriors have gone 8-2 since that frustrating loss to the Lakers on Jan. 27, a night when Kerr vowed his team would turn its season around after seeing progress in that game. Kerr subsequently made a huge move by benching Thompson at the end of some tight games before moving him out of the starting lineup prior to the All-Star break.

Kerr has leaned into a starting lineup with rookie guard Brandin Podziemski and Kuminga, neither of whom started at the beginning of the season.

That’s a lot of facets and perceived excitement for two teams that could easily be in the midst of failed seasons. Both have expensive rosters built around aging stars, and their flaws have repeatedly cost them winnable games. Lakers coach Darvin Ham has been under fire — though he enjoys solid support from the front office, team sources said — at times this season.

And Kerr’s contract status leaves his future in doubt. With Monty Williams, Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich taking turns resetting the ceiling for coaching salaries over the past nine months, keeping Kerr is going to be very expensive for a team openly talking about cutting costs.

This is the groundwork being laid for the summer. The Lakers and Warriors will be watched closely by fans the rest of the season. When it’s over, they will be watched closely by rivals in the league.