LeBron James’ retirement talk is likely an incentive to get the Lakers to build a champion

LeBron James shook up the sports world on Monday night by simply hinting that he was considering retirement, saying simply that he “needs to think about it.”

We have to respect the NBA’s all-time leading scorer by taking him at his word. James — as methodical and calculating as any athlete of his generation — always thinks of everything. But surely he thought about how his comments would land, so who were they aimed at?

James’ stated plan is to continue for another two years, so he can play alongside his son Bronny after a year at USC.

But plans change. James is just 548 minutes behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most minutes recorded in league history – and in all that time he had never approached retirement until Monday. But we have to remember that it was not just any Monday.

“After a tough loss like that, the work we’ve done this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night as well,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham joked Tuesday.

James had just poured his heart, soul and 40 points into a knockout game, playing on the wrong foot. The Lakers star had just survived a physical battle against Memphis, gutted an emotional win over the Warriors and lost a grueling duel with Denver. And all this at 38, while his contemporaries are disappearing.

LeBron James has long honed the art of holding the hammer of his release on his teams to force winning moves now. The retreat is just the latest iteration of that.

Longtime pal Carmelo Anthony had retired earlier that day. Tom Brady had already gone into a sunset with no sacks or hits. Asking an aging athlete moments after his season ends if he’s coming back is a journalistic necessity, but it’s also exactly the wrong time for physically and emotionally drained players to really know.

Athletes often swear they are retiring, only to come back. Others are leaving for good at the peak of their powers (the recently deceased Jim Brown did so the same year he won MVP and led the NFL in rushing, and Barry Sanders was retired of the MVP one year).

“LeBron has given as much to basketball as anyone who has ever played,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “And when you do that, you earn the right to decide if you’re going to give more.”

Maybe it’s James’ passive-aggressive way of getting the Lakers to give more. Anthony Davis to put on more summer sweat equity. Pelinka to get him more help.

James has long honed the art of holding the hammer from his starting on his teams to forcing winning moves now. The retreat is just the latest iteration of that.

LeBron James looks down in the final minutes of the Lakers' Game 4 loss to the Nuggets.
LeBron James looks down in the final minutes of the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the Nuggets.

A month from now, the Lakers will be making some huge decisions, and James probably wants to have some say if not control over them. He may not say get Kyrie Irving, but he sure says get better.

Irving, who requested a trade from the Nets in February and was sent to Dallas, is a future free agent. The guard has sat courtside in several Lakers playoff games, including Monday’s Finals. Since last summer, James has reportedly been pushing the team to acquire Irving; it could be more of a push.

James and Irving spent three seasons together in Cleveland, reaching the NBA Finals in each of them (winning in 2016 on Irving’s signature shot). A Hollywood reunion wouldn’t have Irving having to create something with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn (or Luka Doncic in Dallas) but simply recreating the magic he already had with James.

But Irving, eligible for a deal starting at $47 million, would have to take a huge pay cut to join the Lakers, after turning down even a modest pay cut in Brooklyn. They would have to say goodbye to Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley to generate even $30 million in cap space.

It’s a gap the size of the Grand Canyon, but surely James knows it’s not Irving or a bust for the Lakers. They could sue Fred VanVleet, whose agent, Rich Paul, represents both James and Davis. There are other options they can afford and ways to improve. Which could be the message: if you don’t get Kyrie, get better.

Of course, James will think about his future. He always does.

But it could be about forcing the Lakers to think the same thing.


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