After a vintage, 40-point performance Monday night in which he played all but 4.3 seconds of the Lakers’ season-ending loss to Denver, it turned out that LeBron James had one more sizzling shot left to unleash.
Asked to evaluate his season and look to the future after the Nuggets had completed a sweep of the Western Conference finals with a 113-111 victory at Crypto.com Arena, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer said he wasn’t ready to think that far ahead. The season had been challenging for him and for the team, but he called it “a pretty cool ride.” Then he turned cryptic.
“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,” he said at a postgame news conference. “Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”
Asked later to clarify what he had meant, he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin he had meant, “If I want to continue to play.” As in next year? “Yeah,” James said.
That would mean he would walk away from the $97.1 million remaining on the last two years of his contract and his long-cherished dream of playing alongside his son Bronny, who has committed to play for USC next season. “I got to think about it,” James said.
The drama surrounding the Lakers never ends, even though their season came to an abrupt end Monday.
General manager Rob Pelinka and coach Darvin Ham, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, didn’t dismiss James’ retirement hints.
“Coach and I will speak to LeBron in the coming days. We all know that he speaks for himself, and we’ll look forward to those conversations when the time is right,” Pelinka said. “I will say this: LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who has ever played, and when you do that, you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more.”
Ham joked he was ready to retire after the end of a long and often difficult season and praised James for being “front and center” in helping the coaching staff move the Lakers forward. “Kudos to him. Love him. Support him,” Ham said. “Again, he’s earned the right to do whatever he feels comfortable doing.”
James’ sentiments might have been fueled by the raw and intense disappointment of seeing his basketball calendar go blank after he had envisioned playing a fifth game, a sixth, a seventh against Denver and maybe more beyond that. He carried the Lakers on Monday against the no-panic, all-business Nuggets, becoming the oldest player in NBA history, at 38 years and 143 days, to score 40 or more points in a playoff game.
“Arguably the best player to touch a basketball,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “He came out on fire. He came out super aggressive and kind of kept us in it in the first half.”
Ham saw that passion too. “He just came out with a mindset to keep this thing going,” the coach 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.”
And still, it wasn’t good enough to keep the Lakers’ season going. For some of the usual reasons — inconsistent efforts from Davis and a lineup that Ham never could settle on — and some new reasons, including the Nuggets’ superior size, skill and discipline.
Remade at the trade deadline, the Lakers finally became a team the last month, taking advantage of the inexperienced Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and exploiting the weaknesses of the Golden State Warriors in the second round. They were overmatched against Denver, the No. 1 seed in the West, but the Lakers left the court feeling optimistic that on some not-so-distant day they will celebrate a conference title, as the Nuggets did Monday.
“I said it to Bron after, I think it was Game 3 or 4 of the Memphis series, and was just like: This is the most fun playing basketball I’ve had, just the group of guys that we’ve had, the level that we’ve played at. And me being a competitor, obviously I want to get back to this stage and even further and win the championship,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “I know that there’s no better feeling than that, just talking with Bron, [Davis], guys that have won championships.”
Davis acknowledged it was difficult to say what the Lakers would have to do to equal or surpass the Nuggets because they’re not sure what their roster will look like next season. “A lot of our guys are free agents, so who knows? That’s a tough question. We don’t know what team we have next year,” Davis said.
“But whatever it is, whoever we have coming to training camp with the mindset of building that chemistry, building that foundation, me and LeBron setting the tone, trying to get back here and further. I think we are more than capable of doing so. We’ve just got to do it.”
It’s interesting that Davis talked about him and James being the tone-setters and leaders next season because that would indicate James hasn’t told Davis of any plans to retire.
It’s also possible James’ responses Monday were his way of flexing his muscles for members of the Lakers’ front office. He could use his leverage as a weapon to encourage Pelinka to pursue one free agent over another this summer — think Kyrie Irving — and remake the roster yet again. Pelinka said he would like to achieve the continuity the Nuggets have had, but change is inevitable for the Lakers.
Point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was moved to the bench Monday and replaced as a starter by Dennis Schroder, might have played his way out of being offered another contract. It’s essential that the Lakers keep restricted free agents Reaves and Rui Hachimura, even if it means matching offers they receive from teams that will be delighted to push the Lakers into a salary cap squeeze.
The opportunity for James and Davis to be the central figures in another title run is closing rapidly.
“We know the window is always small and obviously he’s not getting any younger,” Davis said of James. “You know, this is why this was so important to both of us, and it hurts that we didn’t get it done. But you know, we regroup, figure out ways we can be better. Figure out ways I can be better, more consistent for our ballclub, and we come back next year ready to go.”
That is, if there’s a next year for James with the Lakers and he doesn’t take his talents into retirement.