Did LeBron James play his last game with the Lakers? Let the offseason of intrigue begin

DENVER — There was a familiar gleam in LeBron James’ eye during his exit interview, not too long after the familiar feeling of being ousted by the reigning kings in the postseason.

He wanted to leave everyone hanging on his every word, on the mere possibility — it’s showtime at the Apollo, only in a back room in Denver, while the dull cheers of Nuggets faithful continued into the night.

“Uhhh, I’m not gonna answer that. Appreciate it,” James replied when asked if this night — an emotion-filled, competitively soaked and ultimately draining night — would be his last as a Los Angeles Laker.

Or rather, if he considered the thought that Game 5 of the Lakers’ first-round series, in which L.A. lost 108-106, would be his last in a Laker uniform.

The Lakers aren’t usually a pit stop for historic greats. It’s not a guarantee, as in the case of Shaquille O’Neal becoming a journeyman after being traded from the Lakers in 2004, but that’s an extreme case.

This is the franchise that was the last stop for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and many others. This is the franchise that was the only stop for Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West.

But James is an entity unto himself, able to downshift off the floor into thoughts about his future just as deftly as he was Monday night on the floor when he kept the Lakers in contention against the champions, only to come up short yet again.

A close-but-no-cigar loss might satiate most, but James made it clear he’s not in this for participation trophies, especially as his own margin for error decreases with each passing year and as the NBA, which he once held in the palm of his hands, is ready to move on without him.

In a competitive sense, at least.

“We lost. I’m not a participation guy. We lost. And we move on and see how we can be better,” James said.

He has options, and, of course, James has leverage. He makes sure of it — that’s where the twinkle in his eye came from when he issued his hanging answer.

If there was a lasting taste to leave, it was James trying to rally the Lakers against a champion that doesn’t look invincible, that, in fact, looks quite beatable this postseason. While some may view that as a source of optimism for James and his future with the Lakers, it could very well serve as reason for increased frustration, another opportunity missed to add to his ring count.

If Anthony Davis’ left shoulder hadn’t been hanging more than James’ last words, the Lakers could’ve made some things really interesting. Not that they had the Nuggets on the ropes — they were down 3-0 a couple days ago, let’s have some perspective here, but they had a couple of these games within their grasp, they just couldn’t close.

James’ 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds showed he can still perform at a high level, and his plus-three on the evening showed the Lakers needed every ounce he could deliver out of his 39-year-old body in 44 minutes.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) checks the scoreboard in the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, April 29, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) checks the scoreboard in the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, April 29, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

LeBron James has options this summer. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But 39 will soon turn to 40, and he’ll be challenging history once again, if he returns. Last year, he openly opined about the possibility of retirement following the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference finals — to the point where it took some sting out of the Nuggets’ celebration following their sweep.

So it’s on the table — it has to be, even if it’s unlikely. He can walk away completely, but with his big-picture aspirations of wanting to own a team and his never-ending but perhaps winless chase of Michael Jordan to be known as the game’s greatest ever, along with wanting to obliterate the record books, it seems more plausible he could exercise his opt-out and hit free agency, a decision he has to make before heading to Paris for the Olympic Games.

The Decision, part quatro?

The Lakers, if they know James from having him in tow for the longest stretch of any franchise since his first stint as a Cleveland Cavalier, have to have an idea of what it would take to bring him back.

Does it mean he wants the Lakers to fully pursue yet another star, be it Atlanta’s Trae Young or perhaps a dynamic wing? Is playing with his son, Bronny, still at the top of the priority list? He seemed to indicate the latter wasn’t as strong a desire, stopping himself from calling his namesake “the kid,” saying the “young man” has his own choices to make, his own life to live.

But if there’s a world where he could have his cake and ice cream too, James would surely entertain it, as well as another run at the Nuggets if they happen to repeat. And sometimes, a spouse has to know there’s a chance you will leave before they fully straighten up and deliver on your list of requirements — even if there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

Head coach Darvin Ham’s job security has been rumored about for weeks now, despite the lack of top-end talent aside from James and Davis, along with having to manage their old and beaten bodies through the course of an 82-game season.

If a star wants you around, geriatric or not, you’ll be there. If not, you’ll be gone regardless of true culpability.

It’s the NBA way nowadays, and the Lakers will hold someone responsible for underachieving with high expectations.

“It’s been a hell of a two years, I’ll tell you that,” Ham said. “You want to win that ultimate prize. It seemed like every time we hit a rhythm, somebody, a key piece, would fall out of the lineup. It is what it is, man.”

Davis played a career-high 76 games this season and is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, but everyone knows the downside of having him: at a moment’s notice, at the worst possible time, when trying to complete an improbable comeback against the team that’s been your boogeyman, he can come up with an injury that can’t be predicted or prevented.

James shares a close friendship with Davis and, of course, an agent in Rich Paul, so Davis knows if recruiting will have to be done, he will gladly step in.

“I’m pretty sure, not even on his mind right now, but pretty sure he’ll come talk to me and tell me what’s going on before he (goes) public with the decision,” Davis said. “But obviously, it’s been a great five seasons with him.”

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The individual seasons the Lakers got out of James and Davis probably can’t be duplicated next season, especially from a standpoint of health as they’ll enter next season with more miles following the Summer Olympics.

Are they the team that plowed through and won the inaugural In-Season Tournament? Or the team that sputtered after? Are they the team that finished the season 11-3 (23-10 in last 33, fifth best in the league) before the Play-In Tournament or the one that couldn’t take advantage of a lethargic defending champion?

The answer usually sits somewhere in the middle, in the gray area.

And the gray area is where James loves to be. The ambiguity. The never-ending discussion and platitudes about his greatness. The internal discussions a team must have about what life could be like without James, and the ones that will happen in boardrooms across the NBA, just on the off-chance James truly wants to explore free agency to chase Ring No. 5.

And the discussions about what a league could look like if he finally decides to walk away, even if he can still play at an elite level.

It’s all tantalizing, and it can dull some of the pain from watching Aaron Gordon snatch a late rebound away from James’ arms, leading to a Jamal Murray triple in the final minute — which only set the stage for Murray to break the Lakers’ hearts one more time with a runner with 3.6 seconds left.

So James exited the floor, one last time, to the celebration of a team moving on, a team that could again have his competitive blood on their banners.

But he turned the tables again on his way out of the building, with a glimmer of intrigue as he left us hanging once again — knowing the conversation is just beginning.

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