LOS ANGELES — It’s possible LeBron James could retire, someday it actually will happen but it ain’t happening now — if anything we know about the man in 20 years of him being on this public stage holds true.
James hinted at the possibility following the Lakers’ sweep at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals Monday, putting it out there in the form of an answer to a question that wasn’t asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest,” James said. “I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest. Just for me, personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”
James was asked about evaluating the season, not about his personal future. It stands to reason that after 20 years and so many records with his name on it, and watching peers come and go, he would be asked about it.
But retiring? Right now? When he hasn’t maximized leverage on the Lakers, to get him the players he feels necessary to return to the top of the hill?
At 38 years old, he’s earned the right to go through the process — like Aaron Rodgers, like Tom Brady — and come to clear conclusions.
“LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who’s ever played. When you do that, you earn the right to decide if you want to give more,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said to media Tuesday afternoon. “Obviously, our hope would be that his career continues.”
Certainly, James appeared more mortal this season than in any other, suffering a foot injury that cost him significant time and seemed to aggravate once a game during the playoffs before he shook it off to play at a high level again.
Add the season of drama that felt heavy even by James’ standards, there’s a realistic road that leads down the path to retirement, or at least the thoughts in the aftermath following a draining playoff run.
But passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the scoring list, seeing the Lakers turn the corner after the trade deadline to look like viable contenders in what many feel is a wide-open Western Conference, he would feel like he’s leaving too much meat on the bone even as he ages.
Darvin Ham has proven to be more than a competent coach, one that James trusts — a task that isn’t easy.
And we all know James loves to be the topic of discussion, to narrate his own story. So in what world would he call it a career following a game where his last two shots didn’t hit the mark and on his last he could barely get a shot up against Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray?
So even if he is to be taken at face value, contemplating retirement, there are other motives — particularly with the Lakers. For them to be the historical franchise they are, following James’ whims is not top of the priority list.
James wielded the proverbial hammer during his second stint in Cleveland, playing on shorter contracts to increase his leverage against the hometown franchise. Draft picks be damned. Future flexibility? That’s your problem, let’s maximize the now.
Of course, things are more complex as James ages. He’s not as reliable for 82 games even if he can dial it up every now and again (he’s played 56 and 55 games the last two years), he’s still on a mission to win the argument as the greatest player ever, and he wants to play with his son, Bronny, who’ll be attending USC in the fall.
It seems like a lot of conflicting agendas, especially when you know he wants his last dance, his swan song, his tour of adulation through all the arenas through the league — the ones he haunted or ones that gave him the blues.
Retiring abruptly is not part of the carefully scripted plan he’s laid out for his career. And if he can’t apply pressure by virtue of a possible exit to another franchise, applying it by threatening the Lakers go back to the days of Robert Sacre and Nick Young would certainly do the trick.
The scene was amazing in Los Angeles, even as the Lakers faced the prospects of a sweep. Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Jack Nicholson, a who’s who of athletes and entertainers were all in attendance at Crypto.com Arena — many it seemed, for the first time in years. Lakers governor Jeanie Buss was in her usual seat, not far across the way from the Lakers’ bench, doing the “ice in my veins” celebration following a Dennis Schröder triple in Game 4.
You know, Game 4, when the Lakers trailed 3-0 to the Nuggets and facing insurmountable odds, Buss was giggling and celebrating like she hadn’t experienced more championships than her fingers could hold.
Potentially going from Boardwalk to Baltic Avenue isn’t something Buss or the other Lakers stakeholders are anxious to return to.
And James knows this.
If nothing else, he’s well aware of his own star power. His value to the NBA, his value to the franchises he’s played for. The Lakers always get stars and will again, no matter who’s there. But James also realizes the power of his words — threatening retirement after a 48-minute, 40-point game? The public would eat up the possibility of James walking away, so the Lakers would be accused of franchise malpractice if they didn’t do everything they could to entice him to keep going.
Like, say, signing Kyrie Irving, or making a super strong push to acquire him once he hits unrestricted free agency. James and Irving are friends after their rocky ending in Cleveland, and Irving was seated prominently underneath the basket on the visitor’s side in Game 4.
The D’Angelo Russell story had its high moments — particularly in the second round against the Golden State Warriors — but he couldn’t muster anything against Denver. The Lakers have decisions to make on Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, with Reaves expected to receive strong interest around the league in restricted free agency.
Of course, the last time James’ strong hand tipped the scales in his direction, the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook — which was an outright disaster for all involved. And it took miraculous machinations from dealmaker Rob Pelinka to pull them out of the muck and back into relevancy.
That influence won’t stick to James, in large part because his play has been better than expected for someone his age and that takes up most of the oxygen in any discussions involving him.
The West might’ve had a down year as far as teams at the top, but things are shuffling and James sees opportunity again — opportunity he hasn’t seen since 2020, when the Lakers won a championship in the Orlando bubble.
This is as close as he’s been since, by far. And if anyone thinks James will truly consider walking away at this point, they don’t know James.
But if the Lakers think they shouldn't take his threats seriously, they don’t know him either.