Lakers star LeBron James surprised people with his comments at the end of his postgame news conference Monday, hinting at an uncertain basketball future that could include a surprise retirement despite being under contract with the Lakers for at least the 2023-24 season.
Asked how he would evaluate his 20th season in the NBA, one in which he set the league’s all-time scoring record, James meandered through several different thoughts before ending with a cryptic message about his future.
“I think it was OK. 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,” he said. “You know, 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 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. 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 is set to earn nearly $47 million next season and has a player option for approximately $50 million for 2024-25.
The Lakers lost 113-111 to Denver on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena as the Nuggets completed the series sweep.
People close to the matter but not authorized to speak publicly acknowledged the physical and mental toll on James throughout the season.
Following the loss, James was undoubtedly raw — particularly after his 40-point game against Denver wasn’t enough.
“That’s human nature when you’re a competitor. Obviously frustrated. Not being able to close out one of these games where you were in every game,” James said. “You know, two games in Denver, two games here, we’re winning [in] every game. We were up 15 at the half. They hit us with a 36-point quarter, took momentum of the game. We still had an opportunity but just couldn’t make plays down the stretch.
“That’s the frustrating part. You tip your hat to them. Like I said, it’s a great team.”
Early in the season, the Lakers struggled to make Russell Westbrook work as part of their core as the team quickly fell to 2-10. James would eventually break the scoring record ahead of the All-Star break, playing through chronic ankle soreness. He tore a tendon in his foot Feb. 26 and narrowly avoided surgery thanks to meeting with “the LeBron James of feet.” He returned after 13 games and helped lead the Lakers reach the Western Conference finals.
James has consistently spoken about a desire to play professionally with his oldest son, Bronny James, who committed to play for USC.
James has long stated that playing in the NBA with his son was a goal.
“I was serious and I’m still serious about it,” he said after Bronny committed. “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?’ So, 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 plays out, he’s going to do what’s best for him.”
Asked about longevity and possible retirement in late December when the Lakers were 14-21, James talked about a desire to continue playing.
“I know as long as my mind stays in it, I can play at this level for a minute. Now, that’s up to my mind. My body is going to be OK because if my mind is into it, I will make sure my body is taken care of and I’ll continue to put in the work. So, I’m a winner and I want to win,” James said after that loss to the Heat. “And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion, that has always been my goal since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio. And I know it takes steps to get there.
“But once you get there and know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore. So, we’ll see what happens and see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple years.”
Monday’s comments were more cryptic than any he’s given in the past, coming after repeated side-stepping about the Lakers or his future.
“ I haven’t even thought about next year,” he said when asked about improving the roster. “I don’t know.”
Asked a version of the same question again, James mentioned the team’s upcoming free agents.
“The roster is not set,” he said. “Obviously that’s Rob [Pelinka] 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.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.