LeBron James Dangles Retirement from the Lakers, But What Was His Agenda?
Via Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets on May 22, 2023 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California.
- If LeBron James retires, it’s because of everything all at once
- Always assume politics with LeBron
- A door you can’t shut again
I’m fond of saying LeBron James is all things at once.
He’s a kid from Akron who was living out of his car with his mom before becoming literally a billionaire.
He’s the man who turned his back on Cleveland and also the man who returned and brought them a title.
He’s the originator of the Superstar Empowerment Era and a player who has always absolutely loved and relied on the bonds of teamwork.
James is at once maybe the smartest player, basketball-IQ-wise, to ever step on a hardwood floor, and the guy who constantly made erroneous choices for his preferred teammates.
On Monday night, he was all things again. He was a great and powerful champion who played all but four seconds of an elimination game, scoring 40 points with 10 rebounds and nine assists. He was also a player who fell short of his championship aspirations again.
He was at once let down by his teammates, most especially his hand-picked superstar running mate who got stuffed in a locker by the Western Conference Finals MVP, Nikola Jokic, and also the man who after the game, struck at the Lakers’ front office, his teammates and the Nuggets at once.
After the Lakers‘ Game 4 loss to Denver in the Western Conference Finals, James asserted that he was going to take some time and “consider” if he wanted to continue to play.
He told ESPN that he would at least consider “walking away” from the NBA this summer.
It’s the first time James has ever suggested such a thing. After all, he’s coming off another amazing season and playoff run, and while he finished the season hampered by a foot injury that would have required surgery otherwise, nothing else really seemed to be preventing James from playing, and playing at a high level, into the future.
James’s comments seemed tinged with emotion and raw in the aftermath of a series that many believed the Lakers would win based on their star profile and historical dominance, regardless of Denver being younger, better and holding home-court advantage.
Instead of being upset with the ending of the Lakers’ season at Crypto.com Arena, raging at the need to get better, James seems fed up.
This all follows a season where James routinely and consistently expressed everything from frustration to exasperation for a front office that refused to make trades to upgrade the roster until the deadline. The Lakers found new life after the deals for Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jared Vanderbillt and Malik Beasley.
But James already had to spend a lot of energy and mileage on holding up the Lakers through the first half of the season on account of 1) their roster deficiencies and 2) the absence of Anthony Davis due to injury. There was a perceived power struggle league-wide between James, who wished the Lakers would use their draft picks to acquire better players, and the front office that sought to keep the powder dry.
So it’s entirely possible that James’ comments were as much to the front office, essentially saying “I’m too old for this stuff. I’m too old to try and play 48 minutes and drag this team to the finish line because you won’t do everything necessary to put a championship team around me.”
Granted, by all accounts it was James and his representatives at Klutch Sports who sought out the ill-fated Russell Westbrook trade that brought the former MVP to Los Angeles.
Whether it be a deal for Kyrie Irving (who was courtside Monday) or the next disgruntled star who just so happens to want to don the yellow and gold, James could be sending a message that if the team isn’t serious about getting him help, James may not be so serious about returning.
James spoke at the podium about a conversation with Davis about the Nuggets having been the best team the Lakers had faced in their championship run over the past four seasons. Despite some weirdness, particularly on the night James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, everything has seemed fine between James and Davis.
But Davis, after scoring 40 in the first game of the series, largely disappeared in the Western Conference Finals. He finished Game 4 with 21 points on just 6-of-15 shooting, and the defensive phenom was routinely nothing more than a bystander in the highlight reels for both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
James has routinely said before each Lakers season that the team’s chances would only go so far as Davis’s ability to be their MVP. Davis has shown flashes, notably every other game, but hasn’t replicated his standout performance in the Orlando Bubble, which was largely built on an outlier jump-shooting performance in empty arenas.
With Davis 30 years old and constantly besieged by injuries, it may simply be time for the Lakers to try and find a new heir to the throne for James. James needs to be the second star, the sage veteran legend, not the driving force. James played nearly eight more minutes than Davis on Monday night despite his foot injury. James made the best defensive sequence of the game, shutting down both Jokic and Jamal Murray on a possession.
Davis, on the other hand, had Jokic brush by him on the way to the game-winning score.
The Body, Politic
James’s comments coming out of the blue may make it seem like a compulsion or an emotional reaction. But everything James does is plotted and planned. You always have to assume a purpose with anything James does in the public eye. He’s been in it too long and understands it too well to think otherwise.
That said, every NBA player reaches that point where he’s done.
It’s unlikely James will retire this summer. He has two years left on his deal and has said in the past he wants to play with his son, USC recruit Bronny James, in the Association.
A one-year retirement would free him from contractual obligations and allow him to join Bronny wherever he’s drafted (assuming he is, which seems certain).
But the most likely scenario is that he returns to LA for one more run.
However, don’t overlook the implication of this. Once an athlete admits that mortality, once retirement is on the table, it’s only a matter of time. The body may still be able for James, but the spirit clearly is waning.
This was year 20 for James. Four titles, so many legendary battles.
But after scoring 30 in the first half vs. the Nuggets, there was nothing left for James, and despite all the planning by him and his Klutch agency, no one was there to carry him the rest of the way.
James could be applying pressure to the front office, or venting frustration, or setting the table for a farewell tour next year that Nike would use to sell many, many shoes.
But it doesn’t change the reality. We don’t know how many LeBron James NBA games we have left, but it’s substantially fewer than we thought we had before Game 4.
Just as a final note, James’ casual assertion of his uncertainty immediately became the thing to talk about. James essentially robbed the Nuggets of the attention they had been constantly saying they haven’t received. The headlines today will be about James, not the Nuggets’ triumph.
If that was unintended by James, it’s a rare moment of him not understanding the power of his own voice, and that seems unlikely.
If it was intended, it’s a slightly petty move by an all-time great to make sure that the team that dethroned the Lakers in the playoffs in a sweep still doesn’t get the satisfaction of the spotlight.
Even in a miserable, pitiful sweep of a loss, the Lakers and LeBron James remain the biggest story in the NBA.
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