LeBron James hints at retirement and lobs additional intrigue into Lakers’ offseason

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LOS ANGELES — The question was about how LeBron James would evaluate his 20th season on a personal level.

After repeatedly declining to discuss next season or the Lakers’ outlook in great detail, James pivoted and ended his postgame press conference with a cryptic message about his future with the Los Angeles Lakers — and, to a larger extent, the NBA.

“I think it was OK,” James said. “I don’t like to say it’s a successful year because I don’t play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career. I don’t get a kick out of making a conference (finals) appearance. I’ve done it — a lot. And it’s not fun to me to not be able to be a part of getting to the (NBA) Finals.

“But we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens going forward. I don’t know. I don’t know. 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.”

The jaw-dropping statement — particularly, “going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about” — was unprompted. The 38-year-old James, out of nowhere, hinted at the possibility of retirement — an unbelievable notion considering that 45 minutes earlier, James scored 40 points and played all but four seconds of a competitive elimination game. Furthermore, James still has one season remaining on his contract with the Lakers, worth $46.7 million for 2023-24, and a player option for the 2024-25 season worth $50.4 million.

What’s so interesting about James potentially retiring is that he’s still clearly playing at an unprecedented level, even if he can no longer influence his team’s outcome the way he once did.

The Lakers lost Game 4, 113-111, on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena en route to being swept by the Denver Nuggets. But it wasn’t because of subpar play from James. There were times during the game in which it looked like an all-time James performance would spoil the Nuggets’ series-clinching victory.

James gave it everything he had. In the first half, he carried the Lakers’ offense, scoring a playoff career-high 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting. In the second half, he defended Nikola Jokić admirably, drawing back-to-back charges in the fourth quarter against the two-time MVP to hand him his fifth foul. James switched onto Jamal Murray in the Jokić-Murray pick-and-roll actions, hunching over with his hands on his knees due to exhaustion multiple times throughout the fourth quarter. He finished with nearly twice as many points as his next closest teammate: Anthony Davis, who had 21.

“He just came out with a mindset to keep this thing going,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said. “He came in the building, as he’s been all year, all throughout the playoffs, with a focus, a determination, to get it done by any means necessary.”

For the series, James averaged 27.8 points (on 51.9 percent shooting), 9.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks in 42.7 minutes per game. It was an incredible postseason run that capped a historic in-season turnaround. James led the Lakers to become just the second No. 7 seed to make the conference finals. He played in all 17 of their postseason games while managing a right foot injury that caused him to miss a month in the regular season.

Now, his shocking revelation officially begins what promises to be the latest fascinating Lakers offseason.

James’ future is the most important domino of Los Angeles’ summer. Nothing else really matters if he retires or demands a trade. It would be difficult for the Lakers to recoup equal value in a trade. James’ departure would likely result in the Lakers either entering full-on rebuild mode around some of their younger players or trying to reload on the fly as a low-tier playoff contender around Davis.

The first breadcrumb regarding James’ murky future on Monday was when he was asked about Year 21 and if the Lakers were contenders next season or if they needed a roster upgrade. James curtly said, “I haven’t even thought about next year. I don’t know.”

Later in his press conference, James spoke about the uncertainty with the Lakers’ roster going forward.

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the roster will look like next year,” James said. “I think myself, AD, Max Christie, I think Vando has a team option, player option, something like that, I don’t know who else — I mean, the roster is not set. Obviously, that’s Rob and the front office, they are going to figure out the best way to put this team together to go forward in the fall. But it’s not like we have a team full of multi-year guys that’s stuck in a contract right now. So, I don’t know, we’ll see.”

James’ health, as well as the physical and mental toll of his first deep postseason run in three years, could be a factor. James told ESPN that he will be getting an MRI to see if he needs offseason surgery. He had initially been told he would need season-ending surgery after consulting multiple medical professionals about the tendon tear in his right foot, but he said the “the LeBron James of feet” assured him he could rehabilitate and return without a procedure. James opted to rehab and return while acknowledging that his performance would likely be impacted.

The other relevant puzzle piece in all of this is James’ long-stated desire to play with or against his eldest son, Bronny, who recently declared to play college basketball at USC for next season. Bronny James isn’t eligible to play in the NBA until the 2024-25 season — or two seasons from now.

For years, James has indicated his goal was to play into his 40s alongside his son. But following the Lakers’ Game 3 win over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals, a game that occurred hours after Bronny committed to USC, James acknowledged the possibility that he and Bronny may never play together.

“I was serious and I’m still serious about it,” James said then. “Obviously, I got to continue to keep my body and my mind fresh. I think my mind, most importantly. If my mind goes then my body will just be like, ‘OK, what are we doing?’

“But, at the end of the day, either if I am or if I’m not, I’ve done what I’ve had to do in this league and my son is going to take his journey. And whatever his journey, however his journey lays out, he’s going to do what’s best for him. … So, just because that’s my aspiration or my goal, doesn’t mean it’s his. And I’m absolutely OK with that.”

Once the James situation is settled — if it’s even settled before free agency — the Lakers need to focus on re-signing Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, who were both valuable in the playoffs. Reaves and Hachimura are restricted free agents, meaning the Lakers can match any offer sheet either player signs. The Lakers intend to retain both this summer, even if it means matching their respective max offer sheets, according to multiple team sources who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Reaves took a considerable jump this season as the third-best player on a team that made the Western Conference finals. Hachimura proved his value as a versatile forward capable of punishing switches, attacking defenses with his pull-up jumper and defending bigger players in the post. He was often the fourth-best Laker during the postseason run. The Lakers are expected to extend Hachimura a $7.7 million qualifying offer by the June 29 deadline, which would make him a restricted free agent.

It’s unclear if LeBron’s comments are merely a power move to force the Lakers’ hand into building a better roster — something he has been hesitant to do in recent seasons. For what it’s worth, Kyrie Irving and Trae Young, two All-Star-level point guards, were both sitting courtside in Los Angeles for the second time this postseason. Young, like James and Davis, is a Klutch client. The Lakers have had internal discussions about what a hypothetical trade offer for Young could look like this summer, according to multiple league sources not authorized to speak publicly.

James pushed for the Lakers to acquire Irving over the 2022 offseason and at the Feb. 9 trade deadline, as The Athletic previously reported. There is a known preference to have Irving as the third star. There are various machinations to make it work, including the Lakers creating upwards of $30-35 million in cap space by rescinding the free-agency rights of multiple players and declining multiple players’ team options. The Lakers could still retain Reaves if they signed Irving, though their depth would take a considerable hit. The Lakers could also acquire Irving in a sign-and-trade, but that would hard-cap them at $169.5 million and require the Mavericks to cooperate.

James’ mood at the podium was relaxed and even jovial at times, but he also made it known he was upset with the manner in which the season ended.

“I mean, of course, that’s human nature when you’re a competitor,” James said. “Obviously frustrated. Not being able to close out one of these games where you were in every game. … We still had an opportunity but just couldn’t make plays down the stretch.”

In many ways, the 2022-23 campaign was a success for James and the Lakers. It didn’t live up to the organization or James’ championship-or-bust credo, but the group salvaged what appeared to be a nearly unsalvageable situation for the first four months of the season. The Lakers turned a 2-10 start into a Western Conference finals appearance. They were eight wins from an NBA championship.

Ham proved his chops as a first-year head coach, continually growing and learning as the season progressed. He was a much better coach in May than he was in October. He pushed almost all of the right buttons in the playoffs, optimizing his lineups and game plans to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses, especially in the first two rounds.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka showed that the 2019-20 title team wasn’t a fluke — and that patience might have been the best path out of the Russell Westbrook mess. Pelinka flipped Westbrook into three rotation players two weeks after pulling off the team’s true coup — acquiring Hachimura for Nunn and three second-round picks. Hachimura ended up being the Lakers’ most impactful trade-deadline acquisition and appears to be a key piece of their core moving forward. The Lakers have the option to bring back the same core for the first time in years.

James and Davis, after two disappointing and injury-riddled seasons, proved that they are still top-10 players when healthy, and can lead a contender with the proper supporting cast and surrounding skill sets. Depending on James’ future, the Lakers should have a championship window for at least two more seasons.

Davis, who wasn’t directly asked about James’ retirement hint, said he and James still believe in the Lakers’ championship window.

“We still believe, obviously,” Davis said. “Obviously, it’s always a window. You don’t have too many times where you compete for championships. … I have to do a better job of helping him out in that regard for myself, my own self looking into the mirror. We know the window is always small and obviously, he’s not getting any younger. This is why this was so important to both of us, and it hurts that we didn’t get it done.”

Davis then added, definitively, that the Lakers would have the same championship aspirations next season.

“We are trending in the right direction,” Davis said. “Obviously, the goal is to win championships, and we wanted to be not just knocking on the door but actually get it done, walk through the door. So that’s our goal. That’s our goal every time we step on the floor for training camp, and I’m a hundred percent sure that will be the goal next year.”

James has been transparent about his confidence in his ability as he ages. He’s fended off Father Time as well as any other NBA player ever — and possibly any athlete period. For most of this season, he was still a top-10 player. He broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time regular-season scoring record and continued to rack up records and accolades.

But for the first time in his career, his future — not just with a team, but with the sport itself — is in doubt.

When asked a similar question earlier in the press conference, James said he wouldn’t reflect on his career until it was over — an indication it isn’t yet.

“It’s not who I am,” James said of reflecting on his season. “I guess I’ll reflect on my career when I’m done. But I don’t know. I’ll let you guys talk about it.”

For now, all there will be to talk about is James’ and the Lakers’ uncertain summer.

(Photo of LeBron James: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

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