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Is LeBron really considering retirement in wake of Lakers’ playoff exit?

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Kurt Helin agrees that any talk involving LeBron James and the word retirement is a "leverage play" to put pressure on Rob Pelinka and convince the Lakers to improve the roster during the offseason.

LOS ANGELES — With the retirement of Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James is the lone member of the 2003 draft class in the league, and he’s still going strong. LeBron remains one of the top 10-15 players in the NBA — he made Third Team All-NBA this season — and can summon up epic efforts like the 31-point first half he put together Monday night in the Western Conference Finals.

After a game that saw the Lakers swept out of the playoffs, LeBron was asked how he personally evaluated this season and he responded he’s going to spend time thinking about his future, hinting that he might walk away from it all.

“It was a very challenging season for me, for our ballclub, and obviously we know whatever went on early on [in the season]…" LeBron said.” It was cool, a pretty cool ride. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it was okay. I don’t like to say it’s a successful year because I don’t play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career. You know, I don’t get a kick out of making a Conference [Finals] appearance. I’ve done it, a lot. And it’s not fun to me to not be able to be a part of getting to the Finals.

“But we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens going forward. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about to be honest. I’ve got a lot to think about to be honest. Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”

Soon came a report that clarified that retirement was indeed on the table. Then LeBron said this to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

Last summer, LeBron signed a two-year, $97.6 million extension with the Lakers, retirement would mean walking away from that money ($46.9 million next season and a player option for $50.7 million in the 2024-25 season).

In the room when he made his initial cryptic comments about having “a lot to think about,” his words felt like a combination of exhaustion and frustration after a season-ending loss, along with a shot across the bow of the Lakers’ front office that they need to go all-in on next season.

Through much of his career, LeBron has used short contracts and the threat of leaving to pressure a franchise to spend to stay in contention (most notably he did that during his second stop in Cleveland). After signing that extension with the Lakers last summer the threat of free agency was off the table, however, the threat of retirement was not.

LeBron had every right to be exhausted and frustrated — he had just played all but four seconds of a Western Conference Finals game where he dropped 40 points carrying his team, all on a sore foot that he may need surgery on now that the season is over.

Having to shoulder that burden for the franchise at age 38 led to his comments, which felt like a message to general manager Rob Pelinka and Laker ownership and management — what we have is not enough.

LeBron is still an elite player who can reach into a reservoir of energy and pull out a night like he did in Game 4. However, if he has to carry this team night in and night out at age 38 — if he doesn’t have enough other scoring and shot creation around him — there is a ceiling on how far this Lakers team can go. Anthony Davis was the best player on these Lakers for much of this playoff run, but if he was merely good — like his 21-point, 14-rebound outing Monday night — it’s not enough. LeBron knows they need more and made his wishes known in his passive-aggressive way. (It was hard to ignore the imagery of Kyrie Irving sitting courtside watching Monday’s game, even if league sources told NBC Sports Lakers management is hesitant to add Irving, and that Dallas is more likely to re-sign him.)

Lakers ownership will have to open the checkbook to keep this current roster together, starting with likely paying more than they want to keep Austin Reaves. Then there is Rui Hachimura, who helped his stock during these playoffs and is up for a new deal. While bringing back this roster that had the best defense in the league and was a top team after the All-Star break is a start, LeBron wants more.

LeBron has said he wants to play in the NBA with his son Bronny, who will attend college down the street from the Crypto.com Arena at USC in the fall. That would mean ultimately LeBron would play at least two more NBA seasons, fulfilling the contract extension he signed last summer.

However, LeBron doesn’t just want to play out the string these final two years, he wants to contend. And he sent that message.