March 2, 2024

LeBron James was talking about the Lakers’ defense when he suddenly shouted in the direction of the television on the other side of the locker room.

“Pull it!” James barked. “Pull it! Shoot it! Oh, good pass! Catch the ball, man!”

USC’s game against Arizona was on the screen. His son Bronny was playing for the Trojans.

How was Bronny playing?

“He’s doing well,” James replied

How’s USC looking?

“They’ve been better,” he said.

The Trojans were down by almost 20 points and went on to lose 82-67.

James’ enthusiasm wasn’t diminished by the lopsided score. The 39-year-old father continued howling at the television, sometimes in frustration, sometimes in jubilation.

The locker room scene Wednesday night at Crypto.com Arena was a reminder of a potential X factor that could influence the Lakers’ future: James’ previously stated ambition of playing with his son.

The Lakers’ contract with James calls for him to make $51 million next season, but that’s contingent on him exercising his player option.

In other words, he can become a free agent after this season.

Which isn’t to say that he will — or that his son will provide him with a reason to do so by entering the NBA draft this year and landing with another team. Already, James has softened his stance on wanting to play on the same team as his son, saying he’d be satisfied with playing against him.

Bronny, a 6-foot-4 guard, is considered a legitimate NBA prospect, but whether he attempts to jump to the league this year or next or the year after remains anyone’s guess. He’s a freshman who has started only two collegiate games and is just six months removed from a cardiac event he suffered at a Trojans workout. He scored 11 points against Arizona and is averaging fewer than six points per game.

Still, the Lakers can’t discount the possibility of the elder James leaving them to play with his son at some point, and that uncertainty has to be factored in to whatever decisions the team makes leading up to the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

Any team whose best player is 39 years old is looking to win now, but any team whose best player could leave at the end of the season has to be mindful of its future. If the Lakers are thinking about trading a valued asset such as Austin Reaves or their next available first-round draft choice, they had better have some idea of where they stand with James.

For what it’s worth, James seems to feel better about the Lakers today than he did two years ago when he told the Athletic that he’d take less money to be on the same team as his son. When James made those comments, the Lakers were in the first season of their failed Russell Westbrook experiment and on their way to missing the playoffs.

James has since added important context to his remarks, telling reporters last year, “Just because that’s my aspiration or my goal doesn’t mean it’s [Bronny’s]. And I’m absolutely OK with that. My job is to support my son in whatever he wants to do.”

Then again, if his son wants to be a basketball player, who better to guide him into the professional ranks than James? The aforementioned Reaves went from being an undrafted free agent to a Team USA player under James’ mentorship.

James said earlier in the season that he was prepared to miss one of his own games to watch Bronny’s USC debut. In the aftermath of a 127-110 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, James ran to the Lakers’ locker room to watch USC take on Arizona.

“Watching college basketball alone is tough,” James said. “When you add my son in there, it’s even … it’s hard to watch.

“I’m a dad but also love the game of basketball and college basketball just … it’s like 10 people in the paint at same time. It’s very hard at times to watch.”

Most of his running commentary of the USC game reflected that.

The odds are that James will wear a Lakers uniform again next season. Returning would guarantee him a $51-million salary. As Jarred Vanderbilt has started to play his way back into shape, the Lakers have looked in the last week like a team capable of returning to the conference finals.

But seeing James as engaged as he was while watching the Trojans play on this night, he looked as much a father as a basketball player. The prospect of him sacrificing millions of dollars to live out a fantasy suddenly felt as if it was within the realm of possibility.

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