Lakers hoping LeBron James decides to continue career
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — All but one player on the Los Angeles Lakers reported to the practice facility for an exit interview with coach Darvin Ham and vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka on Tuesday. LeBron James, a day after telling ESPN he will consider retirement this summer after being swept out of the Western Conference finals, is being afforded all the time he needs from his team to contemplate his future.
“We’ll look forward to those conversations when the time is right,” Pelinka said. “But I will say this: LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone who’s ever played. And when you do that, you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more.
“I think sometimes we put athletes, entertainers, on a pedestal, but they’re humans and just like us. They have inflection points in their career, and our job as a Laker is to support any player on our team if they reach a career inflection point … and really providing nothing but support for him. Obviously, our hope would be that his career continues, but we want to again just give him the time.”
James’ teammates, many fresh off the longest postseason run of their careers, offered a mixture of support and disbelief when asked about him potentially hanging it up after four championships and 10 trips to the NBA Finals.
“It’d be crazy to see him away from the game, especially when I feel like he has a lot more in the tank,” D’Angelo Russell said.
As Troy Brown Jr. added, “I feel like that’s human nature to be his age and be playing at the level that he’s playing at putting his body through that much work. I mean, I don’t blame him for feeling that way. Personally, for me, I feel like because of his love of the game, he will continue to play.”
The Lakers’ campaign started with five straight losses in the regular season and ended with four straight losses to the Denver Nuggets in the conference finals, but Ham said his first year on the job has only set the franchise up for success going forward.
“Make no mistake about it, this is not just a one-shot deal,” Ham said. “We’re going to be around; we’re going to be a problem to be dealt with. I can guarantee you that.”
Ham’s vow would be helped out substantially by James returning to play a 21st season. The 38-year-old James is under contract for next season — and coming off a campaign in which he was named to the All-NBA third team — but 2022-23 took its toll.
A source close to James called it a “raw time” for the forward. James is digesting a season that went from disastrous, with him suffering a foot injury that cost him a month late in the campaign; to thrilling, as the Lakers upset the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round then dispatched the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the second; to devastating, as his 40 points in 48 minutes weren’t enough to lift L.A. to a win in Monday’s Game 4 against the Nuggets.
“Clearly, he’s got the right recipe because to be able to go from doctor opinions that are saying, ‘Oh, your season may be over’ to ending the way he did last night is breathtaking,” Pelinka said.
While the Lakers will give James his space, Pelinka said that as long as the league’s all-time leading scorer is on board, the franchise will continue to play through James and Anthony Davis as its building blocks, with younger talent around them. Like James, Davis is under contract for next season. Max Christie is the only other player with a fully guaranteed deal with L.A. for 2023-24. Jarred Vanderbilt has a small partial guarantee, but with a $4.7 million total deal for next season, the Lakers will surely pick up his option.
“LeBron and AD as two pillars is, to us, an unmatched combination that we’ll continue to lean into and build around,” Pelinka said. “We’re proud of that combination of superstars and want to continue to invest in that and invest in advancing the growth we had this year into next season.”
James and Davis might comprise the engine, but the team will still need wheels to make it go, and the Lakers will have several crucial roster decisions to make.
Russell is eligible to sign a two-year, $67.5 million contract extension until June 30, after which he’ll become an unrestricted free agent.
L.A. has team options on Malik Beasley ($16.5 million) and Mo Bamba ($10.3 million) for next season. Both Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves are restricted free agents, meaning L.A. can match any outside offers they would receive from other teams to retain them.
“I would say this resoundingly clear: Our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together, and I think we saw incredible growth and achievement by Rui, Austin,” Pelinka stated. “I could go down the list: Vando, D-Lo. We have a lot of great young players, and we want to do our best to fit the puzzle together.”
L.A. plans to keep Hachimura and Reaves and sees both as culture pieces for the organization moving forward, sources told ESPN.
Russell is perhaps the most polarizing of the group.
While a clear upgrade from Russell Westbrook for the bulk of the time since he was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline, Russell struggled against Denver and lost his starting spot in Game 4. For the series, he averaged just 6.3 points on 32% from the field (13.3% from 3) and 3.5 assists. He had several noteworthy comments on Tuesday, including calling his second stint with the franchise a “complete success.”
He elaborated: “I just give the praise to my IQ, my study of the game, just knowing how to prepare myself for what I was about to walk into mentally and physically, to recognize that and activate it. I give myself another pat on the back for that. As far as the future goes, I have no idea. I think when you put a group out there that knows the game and all, everybody wants the same goal, I think you’ll have some success.”
L.A.’s former No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft expressed an interest in returning but sounded confident no matter what happens this summer.
“At this point in your career, to be honest, I feel like you’re you. And I’m nice,” Russell said. “I ain’t worried about my game. I know who I am as a player. I know what I’m capable of. I can win games. I can be better than your point guard. I can be better than your shooting guard.”
While the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs, there was no denying how the team was swept up in its improbable run from 2-10 to begin the season to being one of the last four teams standing. And there is a shared sentiment that there could be more success in store with another shot next season.
“I don’t think a team could beat us in a seven-game series again if we had this type of experience and play together,” Beasley said.