James didn’t meet with the media on the day after the top scorer in NBA history said he needed time to think about his basketball future following the Lakers’ elimination from the Western Conference finals.
The 38-year-old James has skipped his team’s postseason media exit interviews before, but his decision Tuesday left Lakers fans hanging about his intentions with his enigmatic comments following a four-game sweep by the Denver Nuggets.
General manager Rob Pelinka and head coach Darvin Ham said they’ll speak with James soon about his future.
“We all know that [James] speaks for himself, and we’ll look forward to those conversations when the time is right,” Pelinka said. “LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who has ever played. When you do that, you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more. … Obviously, our hope would be that his career continues, but we want to give him the time to have that inflection point and support him along the way.”
Despite James’ 40-point performance, including a career playoff-best 31 points in the first half, the seventh-seeded Lakers were swept by the top-seeded Nuggets with a 113-111 defeat in Game 4 on Monday night, ending James’ attempt to win his fifth career championship in his 20th NBA season.
Ham said jokingly: “Coming off a tough loss like that, the work we’ve put in this season, I think I was ready to retire after last night, too.”
Pelinka and Ham declined to speculate on whether James’ frustration stemmed from the urgency of his persistent foot injury, which could conceivably require surgery to correct fully. He missed a month of the regular season down the stretch but returned to his usual heavy workload before the playoffs.
James had been largely healthy throughout his NBA career until he reached his mid-30s in Los Angeles, where he has missed significant chunks in four of his five seasons.
“When there’s any injury, you seek multiple medical opinions, and there were some that doubted whether he could play again this season,” Pelinka said. “For him to end the season playing virtually 48 minutes and posting a virtual 40-point triple-double as a player in the 20th year of his NBA career is staggering. … Clearly he’s got the right recipe, because to go from doctor opinions saying your season may be over to ending it the way he did last night is breathtaking.”
Pelinka said he hopes to keep much of the Lakers’ current core around James and Anthony Davis, calling roster continuity “a high priority” after several years of major annual changes. But the GM also reiterated that he considers James and Davis to be the pillars of his roster, and James’ presence is vital to their hopes of continuing the progress they’ve made since February.
Los Angeles was one of the NBA’s best teams after making several moves at the trade deadline, going 18-8 to end the regular season even without James. The Lakers then made an impressive run to the conference finals, knocking off the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and defending champion Golden State Warriors, but they ran out of steam against the powerhouse Nuggets.
“We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity,” Pelinka said. “They’ve got a group of players that have been together for several seasons, and it shows in the way they play. We feel like we’ve got special players in the locker room that enjoy playing with each other. We know there’s more growth and improvement in that group, especially if we get a training camp together.”
The Lakers have five players under contract for next season, including James, but several key contributors to their playoff run are free agents. Los Angeles has the roster flexibility to make major moves, but Pelinka says he wants to keep this group together.
“I think there’s proof in concept that this was a really good team,” Pelinka said. “But we’re not going to rest on our laurels. If there’s opportunities to get even better, we’re always looking to improve. But we have a core that’s highly successful, and that’s a good starting point.”
Pelinka made it clear he intends to do everything possible to re-sign Austin Reaves, the undrafted second-year pro who seized a starting job and effectively became the Lakers’ No. 3 offensive option.
Reaves and Rui Hachimura are restricted free agents, but Pelinka intends to retain both. The Lakers’ most prominent unrestricted free agent is D’Angelo Russell, who had several outstanding performances after his trade-deadline return to Los Angeles but struggled badly enough in the playoffs to lose his starting job in Game 4.