FOX Sports NBA Writer
LeBron James ended his post-game press conference with an eyebrow-raising message after the Los Angeles Lakers were defeated by the Denver Nuggets in Monday’s Western Conference Finals, apparently hinting he might consider retiring .
“I don’t like to say it’s a successful year because at this point in my career I’m only playing to win championships,” said James. “You know, I don’t enjoy hosting a conference [Finals] Look. I have done it many times. And I don’t enjoy not being able to get to the final.
“We’ll see what happens in the future. I don’t know it. I don’t know it. To be honest, I have a lot to think about. To be honest, I have a lot to think about.” Personally, if I want to continue playing basketball, I have a lot to think about.”
James put on one of the most impressive performances of his playoff career, finishing the game with 40 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, including a playoff career-high for points in a half (31).
But it wasn’t enough as the Lakers lost 113-111 to the Nuggets.
At the age of 38, he played to within four seconds in Game 4. He scored almost twice as many points as any of his teammates, with Anthony Davis being the second-best scorer with 21 points.
As he stopped scoring with a superhuman performance, he watched the Lakers’ 15-point lead crumble in the first half. James had two chances to level the score in the last 26 seconds, but he missed his 20-foot fadeaway and his 5-foot floater was blocked by Aaron Gordon.
It’s been a long and frustrating season for James.
The Lakers started the season with a 2-10 record. At the end of February, they were in 13th place in the Western Conference. James often spoke of being tired. He frequently described this year’s travel schedule as the worst he had experienced in his career.
“It’s been a very challenging season for me and our ball club,” said James.
There was an escalation before the close of trading.
James told FOX Sports after a game against New Orleans on Feb. 4, “I still feel like I have plenty of gas in my tank to help every franchise win a championship. And I’m here with the Lakers right now, so.” I’m trying to help them return to the promised land for the 18th time.
The caption was clear: He’s here with the Lakers at the moment. He wants to win at the moment. If they don’t make it, then…
The Lakers got that message loud and clear, substituting Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley, and adding six new players through Feb. 9. They shot up to seventh in the West.
Things started to change. There were rumors that they might even be contenders for the championship.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers let the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies choke on their trash talk. In the conference semifinals, they dethroned the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors.
But the nuggets revealed their weaknesses.
The Lakers weren’t big enough. They weren’t deep enough. James didn’t have enough help. They were within three points of the Nuggets in every game of the series in the fourth quarter, but failed to prevail when it counted most.
It was incredibly unsettling for James — a four-time champion who has made ten NBA Finals appearances in his 20-year career.
He doesn’t take two-week road trips to lose. He is not returning from a tendon rupture in his right foot after missing just 13 games, despite two doctors telling him he would need surgery to lose.
James has made it clear in the past that he wants to stay in the NBA long enough to play with his son Bronny, who recently signed to USC and will be eligible to play in the NBA in the 2024-25 season, provided that he is entitled to do so a one-time player.
But after everything collapsed against the Nuggets, it was clear he was reconsidering whether he could last two more seasons of this.
Whenever James spoke about his longevity throughout his career, he made it clear that his mental health is just as important as his physical health. After Game 4 it was clear that this season had taken a worse toll on him than any injury he had suffered in his career.
This was of course cumulative. After winning the championship with the Lakers in 2020, LA didn’t make it past the first round in 2021 and missed the playoffs entirely last season.
During the All-Star hiatus, James referred to the stretch run as “23 of the most important games of my career for the regular season.” He couldn’t bear to be back on his couch.
“Playing basketball at this level just to play basketball isn’t in my DNA,” he said at the time. “It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
Despite the Lakers’ resurgence, they eventually failed against the Nuggets. It was like playing Whack-a-Mole. If they slowed down Nikola Jokic (who wrapped up that streak with three triple-doubles), Jamal Murray would break through (he scored 37 points in Games 2 and 3). If they could somehow stop them both, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. or Bruce Brown would set them on fire.
“Me and AD just talked in the dressing room for a while,” James said. “I think we agreed that this is one of the best teams, if not the best, we’ve played together for all four years. Simply well orchestrated, well put together. You have goals. You have shots. You.” You have playmaking. You have intelligence. You have length. You have depth.”
That’s what James wants.
He’s already proven he can make history by leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015-2016 to become the first team in NBA history to win a championship again from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals.
He’s already proven he can single-handedly lead teams into the NBA (check out the roster of the Cavaliers team he took to the 2018 NBA Finals).
At this stage in his career, he wants help.
But he was largely on his own on Monday. He found additional motivation during the warm-up. While he was shooting around, the NBA was going through their Western Conference trophy rehearsal.
In the first half, he fired 11-for-13 from the field and managed each of his four 3-point attempts. But eventually he slowed down and nobody could catch enough of the gap.
As the offseason begins, the Lakers face many decisions. Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura will be restricted free agents, while D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV, Malik Beasley, Troy Brown Jr., Dennis Schroder and Wenyen Gabriel will be free agents.
When James was asked if he thinks this squad has what it takes to get to the top or if he thinks improvements need to be made, he shrugged.
“I haven’t even thought about next year,” he said. “I don’t know.”
But the biggest decision of all rests in James’ hands.
That season, James became the league’s all-time leading scorer. He posted unprecedented numbers for a 38-year-old (28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists). In Game 4 against the Grizzlies, he made history by becoming the oldest player to record 20-20 in the NBA playoffs. And in Game 4 he shone.
We can only appreciate what we just saw.
We always knew not to take James for granted.
Now it’s disheartening to think that all we might have left are memories.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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