While LeBron James was sidelined because of a torn tendon in his right foot, some of the medical experts he consulted doubted whether he would play again this season.
“It was a significant injury,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka recalled Tuesday at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo.
James returned to play in each of the Lakers’ last eight regular-season games. He powered his team to the Western Conference finals. There, the Lakers were swept by the Denver Nuggets, but James scored 40 points and played all but 4.3 seconds in the elimination game.
Coach Darvin Ham didn’t offer details about the extra work the 38-year-old James had to do to remain on the court or the discomfort through which he played but acknowledged, “It was a challenge.”
The fire inside of James, reduced to a flicker in recent seasons by his failing body and uneven Lakers rosters, suddenly was visible again over these last couple of months.
“You could see the passion,” Ham said.
And you think James actually might retire?
The impulse that inspired his comeback — that inspired him to become one of the two best players in NBA history — doesn’t permanently disappear because of a sweep in the conference finals.
Before he is a media mogul and before he is a philanthropist, James is a competitor. His instincts will resurface at some point, and he won’t be able to walk away. That’s the guess here.
That also was the guess of Lakers guard Dennis Schroder.
“I can’t see that,” Schroder said at the Lakers’ exit interviews. “I mean, to retire and the last game in the playoffs you make 40 [points], 10 [rebounds] and nine [assists], I think you still got juice to play a couple more years.”
More than anything, James sounded exhausted after the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the Nuggets when he made the comments responsible for the rampant speculation about his future.
“We’ll see what happens going forward,” James said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest.”
Notoriously passive-aggressive, James has developed a reputation as a calculated public speaker, carefully deciding on what to say, and when, to advance a particular agenda. That didn’t seem the case here.
His cryptic remarks were made in response to the final question of the news conference. If he were determined to use the platform to subtly coerce the Lakers into, say, offering him an extension or picking up Kyrie Irving, he would have said so earlier.
“Just for me, personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about,” said James, who did not speak to reporters Tuesday.
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin later caught up with James and asked him to clarify what his comments were about.
“If I want to continue to play,” James told him.
This sounds familiar.
This sounds like Clayton Kershaw. This sounds like Tom Brady.
This sounds like someone who was spent after making an extraordinary effort to scale a mountain of a season. This sounds like someone who dedicated himself to a tiresome maintenance program to compensate for his body not healing as quickly as it once did. This sounds like someone who emptied a tank that gradually has diminished in size over the years. This sounds like someone who is wondering if he still has the emotional resources to do it all over again.
“Coming off a tough loss like that, with the work we’ve put in this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night too,” Ham joked.
Pelinka was understanding.
“Coach and I will speak to LeBron in the coming days,” Pelinka said. “We all know that he speaks for himself and we’ll look forward to those conversations when the time is right.
“I think sometimes we put athletes, entertainers on a pedestal, but they’re humans. And just like us, they have inflection points in their careers. And our job as the Lakers organization is to support any player on our team if they reach a career inflection point.”
The Kershaws and the Bradys of the world usually come back. James is one of them. Competitors of their caliber don’t reach the heights they have because of physical talent alone.
“You never want to see a guy like that leave the game just because of all he’s done for it, the level that he’s still playing at,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said.
In the case of James, health could be an extenuating factor. James was an everyday presence on the Lakers’ injury report throughout the playoffs, and who knows what that required him to do between games. He said previously that surgery was recommended to him while he was out. Is that still the case? If so, how long will the recovery take? What will the rehabilitation process be like?
Asked if James could undergo surgery, Pelinka wouldn’t say. Of the Lakers’ and James’ personal medical teams, Pelinka said, “I’m sure they’ll do what’s best for him in the offseason.”
Still, the positives of continuing his career outweigh the negatives.
James is guaranteed $97.1 million over the next two seasons. With his son Bronny a freshman at USC in the fall, he has a very real chance of realizing his dream of playing with him in the NBA.
Most important: He’s a competitor, and he still can compete at the highest levels. His return from injury showed that. His 21-point first quarter Monday night showed that.