It was perfect.
Throughout the NBA’s Western Conference finals, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone and a good number of his players kept railing against the idea that their team was winning and yet the national narrative was all about the Lakers.
So what happens? The Nuggets complete a sweep on Monday night, and Tuesday morning the nation was talking about LeBron James’ offhand comment at the end of his answer to a postgame question about how he evaluated his 20th NBA season: “Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”
Along with a confirmation to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that yes, when it came to possibly walking away, “I got to think about it,” LeBron single-handedly hijacked that national narrative that has been so terribly unkind to the nice little team from the Mountain time zone.
(Sarcasm intended, for those who might have missed it.)
It’s bound to happen: The morning after Denver wins the NBA championship – and I’m picking them in the Finals, by the way – LeBron will announce that he’s coming back after all, and you can guess which red meat the national talk shows will be devouring.
As I wrote following Monday night’s game, I don’t see him walking away yet. He’s got a chance to win a fifth title (and one-up Steph Curry). He’s under contract for $46.9 million next season with a player option for $50.6 million in 2024-25, and while the man is already a billionaire those are still powerful reasons to keep going.
Would he spurn a farewell tour by announcing his retirement in the summertime? Hard to tell, but I suspect not.
But was this instead a very public, if subtle, flex? Could it be, as colleague Mirjam Swanson noted, that this was LeBron’s first shot in the “Get Me Kyrie Irving” campaign, the risk of creating another top-heavy roster be damned?
The response to that potential development should be whether you want another version of the Russell Westbrook experiment. Is bringing in another high-salaried, high-maintenance third star, and eating up valuable cap room that could instead be spread around solid role players, really the way the Lakers want to go following the success of the deeper and more balanced roster that Rob Pelinka assembled after the trading deadline?
If LeBron is considering retirement – and let’s be clear, he brought it up without being asked at the end of Monday’s postgame interview session – it might seem strange after that night’s on-court performance. He played all but four seconds at the end of the first half, came within one assist of a triple-double (40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, plus two steals and just one turnover) and essentially willed his team to within a basket of sending the game to overtime.
James did pace himself over the last several weeks. A lot of that was because of “soreness” in his right foot – the official designation on the Lakers’ nightly injury report – from the time he returned from the injury that cost him 13 games in February and March to the very end of the season.
Father Time does remain undefeated, and LeBron does turn 39 in December. Then again, just consider the gaping hole in the roster should he walk away.
Maybe he was taking one for the team in the interview room. By changing the conversation, he took the scrutiny off of Anthony Davis, for whom our expectations often exceed his performance and did so again in this series. Or D’Angelo Russell, whose jump shot deserted him against Denver (32.2% overall, 13.3% from 3-point territory after shooting 44.5 and 35.2 against Memphis and Golden State), and whose defensive issues made him the Nuggets’ target on offense.
Ah, but there’s this, too: Pelinka lauded Coach Darvin Ham during Tuesday’s morning-after availability at the Laker training site, telling reporters:
“This was a team that competed to the bitter end, and I think that’s something as an organization that we owe to our fans. It’s something we demand out of our players, and it really starts with our head coach and leader and the qualities that he’s instilled.”
Consider that, and then consider the way the Celtics turtled in Sunday’s Game 3 of their series against Miami. They entered Tuesday night’s Game 4 with the Boston media ready to fire their own first-year head coach, Joe Mazzulla.
Pelinka also noted that “continuity is going to be very important” going forward, noting how the core of the Denver team grew together to get to the cusp of a championship.
The assumption is that the Lakers will match any offers that restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura receive. (Reaves, who made $1,563,518 as a second-year player, is particularly in line for a nice, healthy raise.)
Dennis Schröder, who made significant contributions this season, is an unrestricted free agent. So are Russell, Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr. and Tristan Thompson, whose 9:41 on the floor Monday night may have been a shock to people who forgot he was on the team. Scotty Pippen Jr. is also a restricted free agent.
Right now, with just seven players under contract – James, Davis, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba, Jarred Vanderbilt, Shaquille Harrison and Max Christie – the Lakers’ payroll is at $123,155,354 according to Spotrac, $38,844,646 below the luxury tax threshold.
And, for the record, Irving’s cap hit with Brooklyn and then Dallas this past year was $38,917,057. He’s an unrestricted free agent – but, again, do you really want to go that route with a guy who’s hardly the NBA’s most dependable player? Far better to use that sort of money to bolster the supporting cast, especially with far more restrictive salary cap rules about to be implemented.
Pelinka and Ham both stressed in Tuesday’s session that the organizational goal remains as it has always been, to get to championship No. 18 and ideally ahead of their historic rival in Boston.
Getting this close but no closer stung, as it should. Getting this close also should encourage the Lakers and their fans that No. 18 might not be that far away.
But they’ll all be waiting on LeBron.
Lakers GM says he’ll give LeBron James all the time he needs to determine future
Game Day: That can’t be the last of LeBron
LeBron James’ cryptic comments make his Lakers future seem uncertain
Alexander: Lakers were swept, but they weren’t embarrassed
Swanson: What should Lakers’ response be? Run it back