For just the third time in his playoff career, which spans over 280 games, LeBron James found himself on the losing end of a four-game sweep. In 2007 a young LeBron went down in four games to the San Antonio Spurs and learned valuable lessons moving forward. In 2018 a four-game loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals propelled him to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now it has happened again, with the Lakers going down in four hard-fought games to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. Game 4 was an instant classic, with LeBron dropping 40 points to try and keep his team alive. In the end, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets were too strong, and the Lakers join 26 other teams on the sidelines watching the rest of the playoffs. It was expected that they would be working hard on how to upgrade the team around LeBron and Anthony David to make another run at the title next season.
Then came LeBron’s postgame press conference, where he first heaped respect on the Nuggets and Jokic, as any gracious player should do after losing a game. But then came the bombshell. When asked about the future, LeBron didn’t commit to the Lakers, he didn’t say he would be back…for the first time in his career, he opened the door to the possibility that he might not be back:
That cryptic response was expounded upon after the game by NBA Insider Chris Haynes, who reported that LeBron is seriously considering retirement after 20 seasons in the league. James is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, has won four titles with a whopping three teams, and holds nearly every postseason statistical record there is. While a certain generation of fans views Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time, there is no statistical argument for anyone other than LeBron James being the greatest player in the history of basketball. He stands well above any other player in Cavaliers franchise history.
If LeBron does retire it would be on his terms, not because he could no longer play at a high level. He was an All-NBA player yet again this season, had a number of dominant playoff performances and went down scoring 40 points in an elimination game; he is not at the top of his game, but he’s still one of the 10-20 best players in the sport at worst. His good friend Carmelo Anthony retired Monday in large part because he didn’t have a landing place in the league; any of the NBA’s 30 teams would sign LeBron this summer if they could.
Why would James retire this season? That’s not exactly clear, especially since he has been extremely vocal about wanting to share a basketball court with his son Bronny, who will be eligible to enter the league in the 2024 NBA Draft. Is LeBron using this as some sort of leverage play to get the Lakers to go all-in this summer? Perhaps; he’s under contract so he can’t use the threat of leaving, which is his usual game plan. It’s also possible that he was just frustrated with the way the Lakers’ season ended and couldn’t summon optimism about the future.
If LeBron does call it quits, he will be doing so at the end of a long and illustrious career, one filled with many more highs than lows. LeBron James completely transformed the Cleveland Cavaliers organization, and he brought home the trophy in 2016; no one can ever take that away, and it’s unlikely anyone will ever come along, on the Cavaliers or another team, who can match all of the production and winning and gravity that LeBron James brought to the game of basketball.