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Even with LeBron’s contract sacrifice, the Lakers’ are restricted by the salary cap

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NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers
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By taking less than his full max contract, LeBron James all but ensured that the Lakers won’t go over the second apron this season.

Heading into free agency, Klutch Sports superagent Rich Paul told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that LeBron James would be willing to take a pay cut to help the Lakers maintain flexibility to improve their roster. Lo and behold, he did just that.

According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, James was eligible for a two-year, $104 million extension, but he took only $101.35 million instead. In doing so, he helped ensure the Lakers stayed below the second apron — aka, the league’s new worst nightmare — by… drumroll, please… $45,000!

That might not sound like a lot, and, well, it isn’t. But it’s enough to functionally ensure that the Lakers won’t cross the second apron at any point for the rest of the season, which has major implications for how they can rework the rest of their roster moving forward.

Teams over the first apron — which the Lakers are by more than $10 million — aren’t allowed to take back more salary than they send out in a trade. Not a single dollar more. That means there’s no way for the Lakers to cross the second apron with a trade because any trade pushing them over the second apron would involve more incoming salary than outgoing salary.

Teams also aren’t allowed to aggregate contracts in trades — i.e., trade a $10 million salary and a $15 million salary for a $25 million salary — if they’ll be over the second apron after the trade. Had James taken his full max salary and pushed the Lakers slightly over the second apron, that would have forced their hand regarding how much less salary they’d have to take back in any trade.

In addition, teams that finish the 2024-25 season over the second apron won’t be allowed to trade their 2032 first-round pick. That’s a potentially big deal for the Lakers, who only have two first-round picks (2029, 2031) and three first-round pick swaps (2026, 2028 and 2030) that they can currently offer in trades. The Lakers can’t offer the 2032 first-rounder until the night of the 2025 draft anyway, but they’ll presumably want to maintain as much flexibility as possible throughout the remainder of the LeBron era.

Luckily, the Lakers already have all 15 roster spots filled after re-signing James and Max Christie and signing Bronny James to a standard NBA contract rather than a two-way deal. That means they can’t add anyone else to a standard contract unless they waive a player first, which seems highly unlikely given their proximity to the second apron.

In other words, the Lakers almost certainly aren’t going over the second apron at any point this year. James deserves some of the credit for that, but his son also helped. While the nepotism allegations run rampant around Bronny, his bloodlines and Rich Paul’s bullying aren’t the only reason why he got a standard deal.

Since the Lakers used the second-round exception to sign Bronny to his four-year contract, he took the rookie minimum salary of $1.2 million. Any veteran with two or more years of NBA experience would count as $2.1 million against the cap. The Lakers don’t have that $900,000 difference to spare under the second apron.

Sure, the Lakers could have signed Bronny to a two-way contract, used their 15th roster spot on a veteran and asked James to take an even bigger pay cut to make up for that. But Paul told Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report in the leadup to the draft that he didn’t want Bronny playing on a two-way deal. When Haynes asked about that, Paul replied, “Yes, that’s absolutely true. Teams know that. I’m not doing that.”

With James heading into free agency this offseason, double-crossing his agent and his son probably wouldn’t have been a great idea. Instead, the Lakers abided by picking Bronny at No. 55 and handing him a standard contract, but they’re benefiting from his slightly cheaper salary, too.

The Lakers currently aren’t hard-capped at either apron, but if (when?) they aggregate contracts in a trade, they’ll be hard-capped at the second apron. But thanks to James’ contractual sacrifice, that’s now likely a non-issue for this season.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac and salary-cap information via RealGM.

You can follow Bryan on Twitter at @btoporek.

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