Could LeBron James actually retire? Seems unlikely, but the leverage game may have begun

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LOS ANGELES — The Denver Nuggets, who haven’t been to the Finals since their team played in the ABA back in 1976, completed the sweep of the Lakers to advance to their first NBA Finals on Monday night. In any sort of sane basketball world, that’s the headline heading into Tuesday.

But then the LeBron James postgame press conference happened, and the 38-year-old who had talked for so long about playing at least two more seasons — about playing with his son, Bronny, in the fall of 2024 — ended his session in the kind of cryptic fashion that made millions wonder if we might have just seen his basketball end.

For the record, I don’t think that’s the case. But stranger things have happened.

“I don’t know,” he had said during his answer to the 12th and final question, this one about how he saw this season in which the Lakers went from a 2-10 start to a Final Four finish. “I think it was okay. 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. 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. Appreciate it.”

With that, the media floodgates opened. Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported not long after that James was considering retirement, and ESPN’s Dave McMenamin quoted James indicating the same. The challenge now, as has been the case for James during the entirety of his legendary career, is the interpretation of James’ words and deeds. He is not scheduled to take part in the Lakers’ exit interviews on Tuesday, meaning this will be the messaging for the foreseeable future.

Only he knows if this was a completely genuine moment of raw reflection or a revelation wrapped up in an agenda. After all, nothing creates leverage in the organization’s decision-making process more than the threat of the most important player heading for the exits.

Like it or not, the presence of free-agent-to-be Kyrie Irving at Game 4 was enough to re-spark the speculation about James possibly wanting a reunion with his former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate. But as Marc Stein first reported, a source with knowledge of the Lakers plans confirmed that they intend to retain restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura no matter what offers come their way, which would effectively take Irving out of the running. The source was granted anonymity because free agency plans aren’t typically discussed publicly. As The Athletic has reported several times in the past year, Irving has not been seen internally as part of the Lakers’ possible plans. Translation: The LeBron tea-leaf reading will now commence in the coming weeks.

For what it’s worth, sources close to James downplayed the notion that he would actually retire. There was a working theory relating to his state of mind that makes a whole lot of sense, too, one involving the official retirement of his longtime friend and fellow future Hall of Famer, Carmelo Anthony, earlier in the day.

Just four questions before James fielded the question that inspired the aforementioned response, he was asked about the former Nuggets star who was side-by-side with James in a Lakers jersey just two seasons ago. That’s the kind of thing, one can imagine, that sparks nostalgia and introspection in a man who has long since lived up to his unprecedented hype.

They had come up together as youngsters in that storied 2003 draft class, with Anthony carving out his own unique legacy and James doing enough in his 20 years to make the Hall several times over. And here was James, who played all but four seconds of the Lakers’ Game 4 loss and whose all-time record in playoff minutes played is 2,283 ahead of second-place Tim Duncan, pondering the existential question of whether this is how he cared to spend his time in the years to come.

His perspective on Anthony’s retirement was a reminder that James has plenty of non-basketball success in his life these days, as he flexed on the fact that he “shot that (Anthony retirement) video a week ago” and knew that the announcement was on its way. James has his SpringHill Company which has quickly grown in the entertainment production space, and his LeBron James Family Foundation which is forever changing the communities that are so close to his heart. The dream of playing with Bronny when he becomes draft eligible two summers from now might compel him to stick around, but James made it clear that falling short of a fifth title was painful enough that he has some thinking to do.

On the off chance that this was it for James, it should be said that he played like someone who was hell-bent on leaving every ounce of energy on the floor. He dominated the first half as if he was still in his prime, hitting 11 of 13 shots and scoring 31 of his 40 points before heading for the locker room with four seconds left to go before the break and the Lakers up 73-58. He would slow down in the second half, when the sight of James sitting on the bench during the Lakers timeout at the 9:14 mark of the third quarter spoke volumes about his fatigued state.

The Nuggets had cut the Lakers’ lead to eight points, with Anthony Davis struggling to match James’ level of superiority or slow the great Nikola Jokić, when James sat there with a Lakers towel draped across his legs and a tupperware full of orange slices in his lap. One by one, he sucked the Vitamin C out of each piece before returning it to the plastic case from whence it came. The scene was all so relatable, as if he was back in Akron, Ohio as a young phenom on the rise. But even with his 10 rebounds and nine assists and with James’ remarkable choice to take on 47 minutes and 56 seconds of conference finals action, it wasn’t enough.

Even after he took that charge from Jokić midway through the fourth quarter, and then gave him his fifth foul just 32 seconds later when he stepped in front of the hard-charging big man, there just wasn’t enough Lakers help for James to finish this job. The younger generation just kept coming, with the 28-year-old Jokić (30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) finishing with his fifth consecutive triple double in the playoffs and the 26-year-old Jamal Murray (25 points and five assists) leading the way for these relentless Nuggets.

With 4:43 left and the Lakers trailing 105-102, there was James doing the seemingly impossible: Stopping Father Time. He took the inbounds pass from Reaves and let the ball roll along the Arena floor for more than 15 seconds, exploiting this rule that allows the shot clock and the game clock to stand still as a result, then finally slapped the leather en route to his last attempt to extend this series. But yet again, it just wasn’t enough.

Jokić hit that absurd 3-pointer — Larry Bird style, as James deemed it afterward – with 2:50 left to push the Nuggets’ lead to six. He had pulled his left leg back outside of the three-point line on the left wing, just like another James rival, Dirk Nowitzki, might have done it so long ago when they met in those ill-fated 2011 Finals against Dallas. The HORSE shot flew over Davis’ outstretched arm and fell through, and no one could have blamed James for wondering why he was still the best Lakers player on the floor at this late stage.

It came down to the final possession — a James drive on the left side through Aaron Gordon and Murray that was ultimately snuffed out. And now, true to form, James will make us wait and wonder where he’ll take his talents from here.

“I love to play the game,” James had said in his press conference. “I love to compete. I love to be out there for my guys, my teammates, whoever I have that particular year. I think (this season) was special in the fact that having a first-year coach (in Darvin Ham), (a) first-year coaching staff, to be able to take them to the Western Conference Finals, I think that’s dope for Coach Ham and his coaching staff going forward. That’s pretty amazing.

“For me, it’s all about availability for me and keeping my mind sharp and things of that nature, being present on the floor, being present in the locker room and bus rides and plane rides, things of that nature. It’s challenging. It’s challenging for sure. It was a very challenging season for me, for our ballclub, and obviously we know whatever went on early on (this season) or whatever the case may be. It was cool — a pretty cool ride.”

Related Reading

Buha: LeBron hints at retirement, lobbing additional intrigue into Lakers offseason

LeBron James and Anthony Davis letting Lakers down? Nuggets vs. the media and more notes

Why LeBron, AD and the Lakers appeared fatigued as they struggled at end of Game 2 loss to Nuggets

(Photo of LeBron James: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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