All Ball Sports: Come Back, LeBron, Come Back
by Paul Teetor
There’s a memorable scene at the end of the classic western film, “Shane,” where a little boy watches the title character riding his horse off towards the horizon and calls out, “Come back, Shane, come back.”
That’s how most Lakers fans felt this week after LeBron James dropped the bombshell that he might have played the last game of his 20-year NBA career.
A few minutes after the Lakers were blown out in the final game of a four-game sweep by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, James faced the media pack for his mandatory post-game interview.
After answering a dozen questions about the game in which he was dominant in the first half with 30 points, but exhausted and mostly ineffective in the second half with only 10 points, the last question was a routine inquiry about his plans for next season.
Surprisingly, LeBron was ambivalent.
“We’ll see what happens going forward,” James said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest.”
The stunned media pack, caught off guard by the comments, had no opportunity for a follow-up question as LeBron quickly left the podium.
But an hour later another reporter who has covered him for years and years and knows him, and his ways, cornered him in the hallway and asked him to clarify what he meant.
“I meant if I want to continue to play,” he said.
Well, that certainly brought clarity to what had seemed vague and unclear just an hour earlier.
The remarks instantly changed the media narrative from “Look how badly the Lakers got punked in the conference finals” to “Oh my God, this could have been our last look at LeBron in an NBA basketball game.”
The retirement hints came Monday night, but they dominated the Lakers news all week long and into the Memorial Day weekend. For now at least, every story about LeBron or the Lakers prospects for next season has to include the obligatory “If he comes back” or “Assuming LeBron plays next season.”
Now, Lebron is a great, great, great basketball player – the second greatest in history, as far as All Ball is concerned, behind only the immortal Michael Jordan. That ranking is based on Jordan’s 6-0 record in the NBA Finals as opposed to LeBron’s 4-9 record in the NBA Finals.
But even that ranking is up for debate now after LeBron became the leading scorer in NBA history this season and dragged his team to the conference finals after starting the season with an abysmal 2-10 record.
At age 38, LeBron is still playing an elite brand of basketball whereas Jordan, at age 38, was a sad shell of his mid- ‘90s peak form, a ghostly shadow playing out the string with the Washington Wizards a couple of years after retiring from the Chicago Bulls
But there’s one thing besides basketball that LeBron is even better at: media manipulation. He’s a world-class media manipulator, second only to the infamous Donald Trump, the twice-impeached, indicted porn-star pay off paying, insurrection inciting, convicted sexual abusing former president who now wants his old job back.
When Trump speaks, the media reacts like a puppet on a string.
Likewise, when LeBron says anything beyond the standard sports cliches of “We played hard” and “we’re taking it one game at a time,” the media reacts instantaneously.
He is able to change the narrative in a nano-second, exactly like he did Monday night.
But unlike Trump, he actually thinks before he speaks. Indeed, anything controversial that he publicly says is usually pre-cooked and he is well aware of how it is going to be received. Like, for instance, the time he called Trump a “bum” in the midst of the George Floyd murder-by-police chaos that engulfed the country three years ago.
So when Lebron James speaks, the basketball world listens closely. And already the debate is raging about the context and timing of his remarks. Did LeBron drop his bombshell because retirement is something he is seriously thinking about? Was it just an emotional reaction to the loss, which was blurted out in the heat of the moment after giving everything he had – 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Or was it a calculated warning to the Lakers to do whatever it takes to get a third superstar on the roster while he and Anthony Davis are still there?
While there is always a possibility that LeBron is sincere, and could indeed retire this off-season, there are at least 97 million reasons that is not going to happen.
First of all, having been raised in abject poverty in Akron, Ohio, LeBron loves money. Of course, everyone loves money – OK, maybe not Mahatma Gandhi, but everyone else – and LeBron has long made it clear his goal is to become a billionaire so he can play with the big boys of high finance, like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates.
And since he has already signed a contract with the Lakers for the next two seasons for a grand total of $97 million, it is very hard to see him walking away from that kind of cash.
Second, like most people – again, except Gandhi — he has an ego, and a self-image that he likes to nurture and nourish. Insiders in the LeBron camp have long said he plans to give at least a year’s notice of his retirement so that the Lakers – as well as the 29 other teams in the league – can arrange appropriate farewell ceremonies, just as they did for Kobe Bryant back in 2016 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1989.
And finally, LeBron has stated publicly many times that his ultimate goal in basketball is to play at least one season – and maybe more – with his son Bronny, who graduated from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon this year, ranked as the 34th best player in his high school class nationally.
Bronny recently announced he has committed to play at USC, and while scouts differ on whether he is good enough to play only one year in college before declaring for the NBA draft, that second-tier status could actually make it easier for the Lakers to put him on the roster with his father. Since he is unlikely to be a lottery draft pick – meaning one of the first 14 players chosen – the Lakers could either draft him directly with their own pick or trade for his rights after he is selected by some other team late in the first round or in the second round.
Beyond playing with Bronny, there is the prospect of playing with both his sons. Bryce, a sophomore at Sierra Canyon, is already taller than the 6-foot-4 Bronny, and is reported to be more talented and a better NBA prospect.
Combine that with LeBron’s incredible longevity and it is easy to picture the Lakers roster becoming a James Family enterprise.
But above and beyond all those practical considerations that argue against retirement, the reality is he’s playing far too well to just up and quit, no matter how disappointed he was by the loss to the Nuggets.
In a season in which he should have gotten foot surgery but gutted it out for the team’s sake, he still averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds and six assists in 56 games. In other words, he had the single greatest season by any player over age 35 in NBA history.
Retiring now would be a monumental mistake that not only would devastate the Lakers franchise and their fans, it’s a move that LeBron would regret more and more as the years ticked by.
So if retirement is not a serious option for him, what’s really going on here?
We believe LeBron, the master media manipulator, was also trying to manipulate the Lakers management team – owner Jeanne Buss, General Manager Rob Pelinka and advisors Kurt and Linda Rambis. He wants them to do whatever it takes to go out and sign free agent Kyrie Irving, his wingman in Cleveland who hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers history, a three-pointer that clinched Cleveland’s game seven comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
As All Ball has pointed out several times, Irving is the biggest knucklehead in the entire league, but he is a very talented knucklehead who has made the All-Star team seven times. More importantly, LeBron is one of the very few players able to control Irving’s destructive tendencies. Irving blew up the Cavaliers by demanding a trade because he no longer wanted to be second banana to LeBron, he blew up the Celtics (at least temporarily) by signing as a free agent with Brooklyn after publicly promising to re-sign with Boston, and he blew up Brooklyn by getting Coach Steve Nash fired, missing half a season because he refused to get vaccinated, posting an antisemitic video, and then demanding a trade to Dallas, which cost the Mavericks two starting players and a bunch of draft picks.
And as soon as he got to Dallas, the team fell apart and fell out of playoff contention.
Despite all that toxic history, LeBron believes he can keep Kyrie under control.
And perhaps he can.
But Lakers management remembers very well that LeBron was the driving force behind bringing Russell Westbrook to LA, and we all know what a disaster that turned out to be. It was only after the Lakers dumped Westbrook on Utah that the Lakers roster came together for a late-season push that got them into the playoffs, and eventually into the Western Conference Finals.
So why in the world would the Lakers try to accommodate LeBron and bring Kyrie to LA?
For one simple reason: they don’t want their fans – or themselves – calling out, “Come back, LeBron, come back.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor