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Might LeBron play out his contract with Lakers rather than sign extension?

The Athletic’s Los Angeles Lakers insider Bill Oram tells Rich Eisen that the strained relationship between ousted coach Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook was the root cause for the guard’s poor play this season.

LeBron James is under contract with the Lakers next season for $44.5 million, the final year of his deal.

This August, the Lakers can — and will — offer him a two-year, $97.1 million extension. The conventional wisdom around the league has long been he would sign it and finish his career a Laker, but that may be shifting. The first eyebrows were raised when LeBron left the door open to a return to Cleveland during the All-Star break — a sentiment shot down by LeBron’s agent Rich Paul, who also met with the Lakers to say the same thing.

Now this week came LeBron’s non-answer answer when asked about signing the extension.

“The conversation hasn’t been talked about,” James said to reporters at his exit interview. “Technically, it’s because the collective bargaining agreement cannot even be discussed until later on in the year. So, you know, I know what’s out there. But we can’t even — myself and Rich — can’t even begin to talk with Rob [Pelinka, Laker GM] or the front office at all, because of the collective bargaining agreement. So we get to that point, we’ll see.”

While LeBron is technically correct that he and the Lakers can’t talk extension yet under the terms of the CBA, we also all know that’s not how the NBA works. In practice, there are back-channel conversations and intentions are laid out. In reality, LeBron knows what is coming. He chose not to talk about retiring a Laker. He chose to leave the door open. As Sam Amick of The Athletic put it:

We’ll see? If that doesn’t show you James is still reading the Lakers room right now, then nothing else will. Then again, can anyone blame him for continuing to reassess a situation that looks as sideways now as it did when Magic Johnson walked off the Staples Center set back on April 10 of 2019?

LeBron’s pattern in Cleveland was to go with short deals that kept the pressure on the organization to put a winning team around him. The threat of leaving was constant.

After a disappointing season, it looks like he is bringing that strategy to Los Angeles. Or at least the threat of it.