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Column: For better or worse, Lakers need to keep LeBron James

Lakers forward LeBron James, right, and Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr., left, react to a review of a call in their game.
LeBron James (6) and the Lakers came out on the short end of a late review call and the game against the Clippers on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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Depending on the perspective, LeBron James was walking back veiled threats he made against the Lakers or clarifying statements that were widely misinterpreted.

“I see myself being with the purple and gold as long as I can play,” James said.

Whether this was a cynical public relations ploy or sincere declaration is anyone’s guess. What he said Friday night after a 105-102 loss to the Clippers certainly wasn’t legally binding. He still has only one more season remaining on his contract after this one.

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Here’s the Lakers’ predicament: They have no choice but to believe what James said Friday, down to his dubious claim that he trusts their front office to build another championship roster around him.

The Lakers could think the notoriously calculating James was indeed taking an indirect shot at general manager Rob Pelinka when he praised Oklahoma City Thunder counterpart Sam Presti in an All-Star weekend news conference.

They could suspect James knew exactly the kind of reaction he would receive by telling the Athletic last week that “the door’s not closed” on him returning to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

LeBron James discusses his All-Star weekend comments after Lakers loss and says he sees himself “being in the purple and gold as long as I can play.”

Feb. 26, 2022

They could fear James will leave them when his contract expires after next season, a nightmare scenario in which they would lose him without obtaining anything in return.

None of that matters. They can’t trade him. They simply can’t afford to.

If anything, they have to do everything possible to hold on to him for as long as they can.

Calls for the Lakers to deal the 37-year-old James so they can start over ignore what they were before he came here.

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They weren’t just a lottery team. They were directionless and hopeless. They were a franchise in ruins.

Their dysfunction was such that players such as Kevin Durant and Paul George wouldn’t even take meetings with them when they were free agents.

Without James, this is who the Lakers would become again, stuck with the fundamental issue they had before they landed him: They don’t have competent leadership.

If the Lakers want to win another championship and avoid years of mediocrity, they must trade LeBron James.

Feb. 24, 2022

Their problem is owner Jeanie Buss. Their problem is Linda and Kurt Rambis. Their problem is Pelinka.

James was a Band-Aid that magically dropped from the sky into their desperate hands. The Lakers signing him was less about what they did to recruit him and more about him wanting to play for a traditional power in the country’s second-largest media market.

The oversized influence in the organization enjoyed by James and his agent, Rich Paul, is a symptom of the franchise’s underlying condition rather than the primary cause of its troubles.

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The Lakers didn’t have an identity before they signed James, which is why he became their identity. His vision became their vision. The approach resulted in a championship, in 2020, after the team acquired Anthony Davis in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks. But the same nudge from James that convinced the Lakers to deal for Davis has since resulted in a disastrous deal for Russell Westbrook. James recently attempted to distance himself from how the roster was constructed, saying he is asked for his opinion but doesn’t “press any buttons.”

The Lakers’ most recent defeat counted as the third loss in three tries this season against the Clippers. When the game was over, the Lakers were still in ninth place in the Western Conference standings and in line for the play-in tournament. This felt like rock bottom, except it wasn’t. Rock bottom was what the Lakers experienced in the handful of years before they signed James, a reminder that as bad as this season was, it could still get worse.

If the Lakers were under smart management, an argument could be made for them swapping James for a collection of young players and draft picks. But they’re not.

They have Buss, the Rambises and Pelinka, who have provided no evidence they are capable of building a winner from scratch.

At this point, the Lakers might as well give James whatever he wants, whether it’s John Wall or, heck, even son Bronny. If they can’t win with James and can’t win without him, they might as well lose with him, as they did with Kobe Bryant at the end of his career. That keeps them relevant, at least.

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This is who the Lakers are now. If they win another championship with Buss as their owner, they won’t do it by building a roster through traditional means. They will do it by surrendering control to the next superstar who is willing to overlook their shortcomings, either because he really wants to live in Los Angeles or be part of their tradition.

This is their new blueprint.

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