LeBron James ended his postgame press conference with an eyebrow-raising message after the Los Angeles Lakers got swept by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals on Monday, seemingly hinting that he could be contemplating retiring.
“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,” James said. “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.
“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.”
James was coming off of one of the most impressive performances of his playoff career, finishing with 40 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, including a playoff career-high for points in a half (31).
But it wasn’t enough, with the Lakers falling to the Nuggets, 113-111.
At age 38, he played in all but four seconds of Game 4. He scored nearly twice as much as any of his teammates, with the next highest-scorer being Anthony Davis, who had 21 points.
When he stopped scoring at a superhuman clip, he watched the Lakers’ 15-point first-half lead disintegrate. James had two chances to tie the score in the final 26 seconds, but he missed his 20-foot fadeaway and his five-foot floater was blocked by Aaron Gordon.
It has been a long and frustrating season for James.
The Lakers started the season with a 2-10 record. By late February, they were in 13th place in the Western Conference. James would often talk about being tired. He frequently called this year’s travel schedule the worst he had endured in his career.
“It was a very challenging season for me, for our ballclub,” James said.
Things came to a head before the trade deadline.
James told FOX Sports after a game against New Orleans on Feb. 4, “I still feel like I’ve got plenty of gas in this tank to help any franchise win a championship. And I’m here with the Lakers right now, so I’m trying to help them get back to the promised land for the 18th time.”
The subtext was clear: He’s here with the Lakers right now. He wants to win right now. If they can’t make that happen, well, then …
The Lakers received that message loud and clear, dealing Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley, and adding six new players by Feb. 9. They skyrocketed to seventh place in the West.
Things started turning around. There was chatter that they could even be championship contenders.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers made the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies choke on their trash talk. In the conference semifinals, they dethroned the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
But the Nuggets exposed 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 the fourth quarter in every game of the series, but they couldn’t pull through when it counted most.
For James — a four-time champion who has been to the NBA Finals 10 times over his 20-season career — it was incredibly upsetting.
He doesn’t endure two-week long road trips to lose. He doesn’t return from a torn tendon in his right foot after missing just 13 games despite two doctors telling him he needed surgery to lose.
James has made it clear in the past that he wants to remain in the NBA long enough to play with his son, Bronny, who recently committed to USC and will be eligible to play in the NBA during the 2024-25 season, assuming he is a one-and-done player.
But after everything crumbled against the Nuggets, it was clear that he was reconsidering whether he could endure another two seasons of this.
Throughout his career, whenever James has talked about his longevity, he has made it clear that his mental health is equally important as his physical health. After Game 4, it was clear that this season had taken a worse toll worse on him than any injury he suffered in his career.
This was cumulative, of course. After winning a championship with the Lakers in 2020, L.A. failed to make it past the first round in 2021, and then they missed the playoffs entirely last season.
During All-Star break, James called the stretch run “23 of the most important games of my career for the regular season.” He couldn’t handle being on his couch again.
“Playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA,” he said at the time. “It’s not in my DNA anymore.”
Despite the Lakers’ resurgence, they eventually fell apart against the Nuggets. It was like playing whack-a-mole. If they slowed down Nikola Jokic (who finished with three triple-doubles this series), Jamal Murray would erupt (he scored 37 points in both Games 2 and 3.). If they somehow managed to stop both of them, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. or Bruce Brown would torch them.
“Me and AD were just talking in the locker room for a little bit,” James said. “I think we came to the consensus, this is one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years. Just well orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth.”
That’s what James wants.
He has already proven that he can make history, leading the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals to win a championship.
He has already proven he can single-handedly carry teams to 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 pretty much left to do things on his own Monday. He found extra motivation while warming up. As he shot around, the NBA went through their Western Conference trophy rehearsal.
He went on to erupt for 11-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half, making each of his four 3-point attempts. But eventually, he slowed down, and no one picked up enough of the slack.
Heading into the offseason, the Lakers have a lot of decisions to make. 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 roster has what it takes to go all the way or if he thinks upgrades 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 lies in James’ hands.
This 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). He made history in Game 4 against the Grizzlies, becoming the oldest player to record a 20-20 game in the NBA playoffs. And in Game 4, he shined.
All we can do is appreciate what we just witnessed.
We always knew we shouldn’t take James for granted.
Now, the thought that all we could have left is memories is daunting.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She 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.