Lakers remain hopeful LeBron will come back

As LeBron James contemplates his future, the Lakers are hopeful he will return to a core group that advanced to the West Finals.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The news understandably could have hit the Lakers harder than even the Denver Nuggets sweeping them in the Western Conference Finals following a 113-111 Game 4 loss on Monday. Afterwards, Lakers star LeBron James hinted in a press conference that he may retire before telling ESPN outright that he may consider it following a 20th NBA season that showcased both his dominance and struggle with Father Time.

“Coming off a tough loss like that and the work we put in this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night, too,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham quipped on Tuesday morning at the Lakers’ practice facility.

Ham clearly isn’t retiring following his first season as head coach. After the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals a year after missing the playoffs, Ham sounded eager to build off that next season toward overseeing the franchise’s possible 18th NBA championship. So did Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, who opened his exit interview praising Ham for empowering and motivating the team both through a 2-10 start and a post trade-deadline resurgence.

But what about James? Will he really forego the final two years of his contract that will pay him $97.1 million? Will he really pass up the chance to collect more than four NBA championships? Will he really forfeit his publicly stated dream to play in the NBA with his son, Bronny, who just committed to play at USC next season? Will he really walk away after posting 40 points on 15-for-25 shooting overall and 4-for-7 from 3-point range along with 10 rebounds and nine assists in the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to Denver?

“I can’t see that,” Lakers guard Dennis Schroder said. “I don’t know what’s going on, maybe if it’s personal or whatever, But I mean to retire in the last game of the playoffs and you make 40 [points], 10 [rebounds] and nine [assists], I still think you got juice to play a couple of more years. So, whatever he decides. He’s played for 20 years. We’re going to support him. I’m going to support him. Hopefully he’s going to come back.”

Schroder remains optimistic considering he relayed to a Germany newspaper earlier this season that the 38-year-old James told him that he wants to play until age 45. Following the Lakers’ Game 4 loss late Monday night, a person familiar with James thinking expressed optimism to the Sporting Tribune that James will eventually decide to resume his NBA career. But after James fought through a right foot injury that sidelined him for 13 games that some doctors suggested should have surgery, the Lakers understand that James’ goals and feelings can change.

The Lakers also lack exact clarity on James’ current thinking. Teammates, including Austin Reaves, texted James, after the Game 4 to express gratitude for his support and his play. So did Ham, who called James “one of the most, if not the most supportive knowledgeable and communicative resources that I had all year.”

But Pelinka said he and Ham don’t plan on speaking with James formally until “the coming days” when “the time is right.” Ham added that James has “earned the right to do whatever he feels comfortable doing.”

“LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who has ever played,” Pelinka said. “When you do that, you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more. I think sometimes we put athletes and entertainers on a pedestal, but they’re humans. Just like us, they have inflection points in their career. Our job as a Lakers organization is to support any player on our team that reach a career inflection point.”

Therefore, the Lakers have tried striking a balance between giving James respect and space for a major life decision, while still proceeding as planned for a potential busy offseason. On the surface, that might appear impossible to do. How can an organization operate without definitive clarity that its franchise player will return? How can it properly analyze possible draft selections, free agents or trades without assessing how that fits with or without James both with potential on-court chemistry and salary cap ramifications?

Easy. The Lakers may not rush a meeting with James, his agent (Rich Paul) and his business manager (Maverick Carter). But they presumably will speak with all parties well before the NBA Draft (June 22) and before free agency (June 30). The Lakers have the 17th overall pick as well as decisions to make on a handful of restricted free agents (Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura) and unrestricted free agents (D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr.).

The Lakers may face numerous options on how to construct a roster around James and Anthony Davis entering their fifth year together. Regardless, Pelinka considered it a “high priority” to maintain as much continuity on the team’s roster entering next season.

“I want to respect LeBron’s time and space to process what he needs to process. But LeBron and AD as two pillars to us is an unmatched combination that we’ll continue to lean into and build around,” Pelinka said. “They’re both incredibly high character players that want to win and want to play the game the right way. We’re proud of that combination of superstars. We want to continue to invest in that and invest in advancing the growth we had this year into next season.”

It might be tempting to view James’ latest feelings as a negotiating tactic to pressure the Lakers with making roster changes. After all, James has spent most of his career in championship-or-bust mode. It seemed more than a coincidence that a potential star free agent (Kyrie Irving) and potential trade asset (Trae Young) attended the Lakers’ elimination game against Denver. And during his four seasons with the Lakers, James has sent coded and direct messages to the Lakers’ front office about upgrading the roster.

With the Lakers being the Lakers, though, they won’t hesitate to swing for the fences or pursue the unexpected.  Following the Russell Westbrook debacle, though, the Lakers have recent reference points on the benefits of having a familiar and balanced roster.

“If there are opportunities to get even better, whether it’s through the draft, trades or free agency, we’re always looking to improve,” Pelinka said. “But we have a core that is highly successful. That’s a good start.”

When James agreed to a two-year extension before the 2022-23 season started, he did so with the assurances that the Lakers would stay aggressive with upgrading the roster after missing the playoffs only two years after winning an NBA title. James showed some frustration as he continued to defy Father Time while the Lakers struggled amid Davis’ injuries and Westbrook’s poor fit. Nothing captured that dichotomy more than when James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list as the Lakers fell to 13th place in the Western Conference.

Shortly before that record-setting night, Pelinka acquired wing depth (Rui Hachimura) from Washington for an injury-riddled guard (Kendrick Nunn) and three second-round picks. After James set the NBA’s all-time scoring record, Pelinka then flipped Westbrook in a three-team trade that landed a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell),  a dependable rebounder (Jarred Vanderbilt) and a potentially strong shooter (Malik Beasley). In a separate deal, the Lakers then traded an inconsistent perimeter defender (Patrick Beverley) to Orlando for another rim protector (Mo Bamba).

Following the trade deadline, the Lakers finished with the NBA’s third-best record (18-9) and second-best defensive rating (110.8). James and Davis had more space to operate with a more balanced roster. The Lakers’  incumbent role players (Reaves, Schroder, Walker) blossomed more, too. The Lakers’ role players showed varying degrees of success and failure throughout the playoffs. Reaves and Walker became success stories. Russell became feast or famine with his shooting. Beasley and Vanderbilt fell out of the rotation. Bamba struggled with injuries. Regardless, the Lakers jumped from a missed playoff appearance toward beating the NBA’s No. 2 seed (Memphis) and No. 6 seed (Golden State) in one season mainly because of their improved roster.

Just as the Lakers stayed patient with their roster construction, they believe staying patient with James’ decision-making will yield the best result. After the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to Denver, James credited the Nuggets’ success partly for their continuity. Although he expressed uncertainty about the team’s upcoming roster, James praised the new additions for how they played both with and without hm in the lineup.

“I’m sure we’ll have conversations with them in the coming days. We’ll be in contact with his and his team and really providing nothing but support for him,” Pelinka said. “Obviously our hope would be that his career continues. But we want to again give him the time to have that inflection point and support him along the way with everything he does.”

After all, James may have more to think about than just his playing future. He may also have to consider what his off-season recovery will look like. During his four-week absence to heal his right foot, James initially heard from some doctors that advised surgery. He pursued various second opinions, which stated he could return without structurally damaging his right foot so long as he had the pain tolerance to do so. James then went through around-the-clock treatment on non-game days. Once the playoffs started, James maintained that regimen while usually playing it every other day.

Therefore, Pelinka considered it “staggering” and “breathtaking” that James posted his 29th  40-point performance in the playoffs while playing all but four seconds in Game 4.

“All of us understand that the investment of time and resources that LeBron puts into managing his body puts him at the very top with those that have ever played the game,” Pelinka said. “I know that will continue with the way he approaches it.”

The Lakers will soon find out whether that means James will continue his NBA career, too.

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.