On Monday night, after the Denver Nuggets completed a clean sweep of his Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James generously decided to furnish the sports-talk industrial complex with enough material to tide them over until the NBA Finals tip off next week. “Going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about,” he said in his postgame news conference. Prompted by ESPN later that night, he went even further:
ESPN: When you say you got to think about stuff, what thread should we be pulling on that?
James: If I want to continue to play.
ESPN: As in next year?
ESPN: You would walk away?
James: I got to think about it.
And just like that, the takesters were off. Today, everybody has a different read on what LeBron’s comments mean. It’s just a ploy for leverage—he wants the Lakers to add his preferred guys! Or: he’s angling for a reworked contract! Or: the guy is tired of carrying the team, and actually wants to retire!
Any conversation about the end of LeBron James’s career, of course, runs headlong into the increasingly furious dialogue about the beginning of his son Bronny’s. LeBron has long maintained that his goal is to play with Junior, who announced his commitment to attend USC this fall. Recently, though, he eased up on that desire: “Just because that’s my aspiration or my goal, doesn’t mean it’s his. And I’m absolutely OK with that,” he said after game three of the Lakers-Warriors series.
Canny basketball freaks have begun to speculate on one more way to read LeBron’s retirement comments, and one that threads the needle in rather elegant fashion: what if he retired…but only for a year…and came back, recharged, for one farewell season with his son? He’d have the chance to rehab the foot injury that seemed to slow him in the Nuggets series, he’d be a short (if traffic-heavy) drive from home in Brentwood to Bronny’s games downtown, and he’d theoretically be in line to return to play with the team that drafts his son next summer.
Is this likely? Or realistic? Or even possible under the laws that govern both basketball and our known universe? Who knows! That’s for the collective bargaining agreement experts (and physicists) to figure out.
Purely on vibes, though? This would be awesome.
Perhaps the defining and most revolutionary quality of LeBron’s career is the way he’s seized a level of individual control unprecedented in NBA history. Through The Decision, his pioneering use of year-to-year contracts, and the business and entertainment portfolio he’s built outside of the league, LeBron has become the master of his domain. And what is retirement—even a brief one—if not the final and maximum exertion of leverage?
And if that doesn’t quite make the case for stepping away for a season—well, there’s a legacy aspect at play here, too. The other candidate for GOAT, after all, had his own well-publicized stretch away from the game—and then retired for good (for the first time) while still at the peak of his powers. I’m not saying LeBron should join the Dodgers’ single-A affiliate, or hang it up entirely. But the LA Rams sure could use a backup tight end…