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Why Is LeBron James Threatening Retirement?

Will James actually walk away from the NBA after getting swept by the Nuggets? Probably not. So why did he say he might? Here’s four possible reasons.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the Los Angeles Lakers got swept by the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, what LeBron James said at the end of his 13-minute press conference will dominate sports discourse over the next few days.

“I got a lot to think about, to be honest,” James said. “Just for me personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about it.”

James clarified during a side conversation with ESPN that he means he’s weighing retirement. Would he actually walk away? “I got to think about it,” he said. I believe there are four explanations for LeBron’s willingness to announce he’s mulling retirement publicly, and there’s a wild potential outcome this offseason that is worth thinking about.

1. LeBron Is Actually Weighing Retirement

He’s 38 years old! He just completed his 20th season. He has logged over 65,000 minutes. He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. And he just suffered foot injuries that were limiting his play. Perhaps he’s actually considering shifting gears to focus on his numerous other pursuits.

James has one guaranteed season remaining on his contract with the Lakers, worth $46.7 million, and a player option for the following season worth $50.4 million. So he’d be giving up a lot of money that could someday go toward bidding for his own NBA team.

I’d be shocked if he was willing to walk away from that kind of money. And I‘d be even more shocked if he was willing to drop the idea of playing with his son in the NBA, which is a dream he’s been talking about for years and is now potentially only a season away from realizing. That leads us to the next plausible scenario.

2. LeBron Might Retire … for One Year

Squint and you can kind of see it. LeBron announces his retirement, and spends the entire 2023-24 season attending every USC home game, cheering courtside as his son Bronny James suits up for the Trojans. LeBron appears on his TV show, and makes courtside appearances at various Laker games. Behind closed doors, he gets as healthy as he can to return to the NBA for the 2024-25 season. And then, LeBron can come back at 100 percent, setting up for his return and his farewell.

But would LeBron really bypass one more year of potential contention to return … at age 40?

James was asked by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin whether he believed a summer of rehab could get him back to the player he was prior to his foot injury (from December through January, he was far more explosive and averaged over 30 points with ease). James nodded and said he could “because I’m still better than 90 percent of the NBA. Maybe 95.”

We just witnessed LeBron put up 40-10-9 in an elimination game while playing nearly every second. He competitively defended Nikola Jokic. He switched on to Jamal Murray and forced a 24-second violation. He flew around on defense. He carried the offense, scoring the most ever in a playoff game by a player in at least the 18th season of their career. LeBron is past his athletic prime, but he’s still a wildly valuable player who can be a critical contributor to a contender.

Yes, he’s definitely better than 90 to 95 percent of the NBA even in his current state. The January version of LeBron is still better than 99 percent of the league.

So, while I wouldn’t discount LeBron taking a hiatus, I don’t believe it’s the most likely of the three obvious explanations. I think it’s the same blueprint we’ve seen from him before:

3. LeBron Is Publicly Negotiating Again

Making it to the Western Conference finals is a huge achievement for a rookie head coach and a squad that was reshaped midseason. But for LeBron? It’s just not enough.

“I don’t play for anything besides winning championships at this point of my career,” LeBron said moments before hinting at retirement. “I don’t get a kick out of making a conference finals appearance. I’ve done it. A lot. It’s not fun for me.”

So why wouldn’t he wield the threat of retirement—his sole bargaining power this summer since he signed a multiyear deal last offseason—to strong-arm the Lakers into going all in? Get me some reinforcements. Bring in Kyrie Irving. Sign this guy, trade for that guy. Go full throttle for the championship, or else I retire.

The Lakers have a wealth of options to upgrade their squad, starting with the 17th pick in this June’s draft. They also can trade their first in 2029. Most of their roster is set to hit free agency. The collective non-guaranteed salaries of Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba amount to a significant $26.8 million, which could be enticing in trades. D’Angelo Russell will be a free agent, so he could also be a sign-and-trade option. I would expect the Lakers to try to retain restricted free agents Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves, though Reaves would theoretically also have value in a sign-and-trade scenario.

So will the Lakers listen? We just went through a season in which Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office brushed off LeBron’s demands. Pelinka didn’t offload multiple future firsts, and he even passed up the chance to nab Kyrie at the deadline. Instead, he traded one future protected first and scraps for Russell, Hachimura, Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Bamba. It worked, given how far the Lakers advanced after making the play-in. But it falls short of LeBron’s lofty expectations, which is why rumors are already swirling about Kyrie-to-L.A.

Maybe the Lakers abide by bolstering the team around LeBron and Anthony Davis, and they look to make a title run again next season. Despite getting swept, the Lakers were competitive in all four games against the Nuggets. A healthy LeBron and some reinforcements might be all they need to close the gap enough to feel like they have a real chance.

But what happens if Pelinka says no thanks to Kyrie, and refuses to dump significant draft capital yet again? LeBron could hang it up, or he could return anyway and pout about the lack of changes. Or maybe, LeBron could do something he’s never done in his career: demand a trade.

4. LeBron Demands a Trade … to the Warriors

How soon until Draymond Green begins recruiting LeBron to the Warriors? Did it happen as soon as LeBron stepped off the podium Monday night? Will it happen before the Finals begin next Thursday? No one needs a source to tell you those conversations will happen if they haven’t already, given Draymond’s love for LeBron, the Klutch connection, and his history of recruiting.

Interest between LeBron and the Warriors could be mutual. LeBron is BFFs with Draymond and he’s already said that Steph Curry is the current player he’d most like to play with. Last year on The Shop, LeBron’s business partner, Maverick Carter, pushed him to share the team he’d most want to play for other than the Lakers and LeBron said it’d be the Warriors (or the Heat).

“I like the way Draymond talks to guys. I would love to get into a pissing match with Draymond,” LeBron said on The Shop. “I love when somebody cuss me the fuck out if I’m not doing my [job]. I would love that with Draymond.”

Contrast this description of Draymond with LeBron’s dynamic with Anthony Davis (a.k.a. AD, a.k.a. Alternating Days). Davis swings between moments of explosive play and long periods of stagnation. The Lakers would not have made the West finals without AD, but his health has proved unreliable and he’s unable to rise to LeBron’s needs on offense.

The West is Jokic’s turf now, and any route to the Finals must go through him. AD wasn’t even the best option to defend Jokic. It was Hachimura or LeBron himself. Now several of the Lakers’ key players are about to get pricey, and with or without Kyrie, they still won’t be West favorites next season. At best, they make another deep playoff run as underdogs. At worst, they risk draining their future assets and sacrificing their long-term outlook for immediate mediocrity.

Alternatively, if LeBron goes to Golden State for the final chapter of his career, complemented by Draymond’s defensive prowess and the offensive might of Steph and Klay Thompson, it could be basketball nirvana.

LeBron, now more than ever, needs an All-Star shot-creating teammate. It’s clear from this postseason that he can’t shoulder the offense alone. That is why Kyrie is a potential target for Los Angeles. But in Golden State, Steph, who is no longer at his peak, could use a little extra push too. That’s why Golden State’s summer is so pivotal, as well. The union of Steph and LeBron seems like a match made in heaven, particularly as they enter the twilight of their careers.

No team would want to lose a star of LeBron’s caliber, but him wanting out of Los Angeles would bring some silver linings. Pelinka’s reluctance to trade future draft capital points to the Lakers’ long-term plan: eyeing future stars like Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. If LeBron wants out, the Lakers could retain those future assets and could ask for all of Golden State’s young talent: Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and a boatload of picks. Follow that up by flipping AD to his hometown Bulls or the highest bidder, re-signing their own young players, and the Lakers could then build a youthful team, poised for the arrival of the next megastar.

LeBron leaving L.A. would clearly signal the end of an era, yet it would also pave the way for the franchise’s next chapter. And James could position himself to rack up more championships alongside another legend, and a former rival, in one of the greatest collaborations the NBA has ever seen.

Or maybe, just maybe, this miraculous run was indeed the final bow of the illustrious career of LeBron James. Let’s hope not.

A previous version of this article stated that the Lakers could trade their 2024 or 2025 first-round picks this summer.