LeBron James very rarely looks spent at the end of the season. Longtime fans can count with one hand the number of times he showed frustration following a long journey in which he felt his exertions were for naught. Which, in a nutshell, explains away his sustained success; he commits to his craft all year long, and takes just about every career development in stride. Most importantly, he treats disappointment as motivation to improve and ensure that he comes back even better prepared for the next challenge. It’s why he’s counted among the greatest players ever to grace the National Basketball Association.
After the Lakers were swept by the Nuggets in the 2023 West Finals, however, James didn’t just lend an aura of defeat. He seemed broken by his experience — only the second, or arguably third, time since being drafted first overall in 2003 that he reflected anything but his usual dose of confidence. Not that he was devoid of reason; after all, he left nothing in the tank in trying to will the purple and gold to victory, only to be denied by clearly superior opposition. And it wasn’t simply that; in crucial situations, he appeared unable to summon the skill set required for him to excel.
No doubt, James’ latest — and most significant — brush with mortality emanated from a cacophony of factors. To begin with, he’s not just 38; he’s an old 38, with close to 66,000 minutes spread over a whopping 1,700 games to his name. It likewise didn’t help that he negotiated the playoffs with a foot injury that may require offseason surgery. And against the Nuggets in particular, the lack of reliable producers compelled him to norm 43 minutes per contest, including all but four seconds of Game Four. By the time the curtains closed on the Lakers’ postseason run, he was visibly on empty.
Little wonder, then, that James exhibited raw emotions when he met members of the media for his final post-mortem of the 2022-23 campaign. After giving the Nuggets their due, he left with a cryptic message that indicated the possibility of his retirement. If nothing else, it’s an acknowledgment of the state of his fitness in his advancing age. Even early in the playoffs, he visibly lacked lift and was prone to leaving shots short; his three-point shot, iffy throughout the season, abandoned him. And so he was left to deal with his biggest obstacle: himself. He knew what to do; his mind was sharp. But as much as his spirit was willing, his flesh proved weak.
Given James’ penchant for theatrics and unparalleled stature in the sport, there’s little chance that he will actually follow through on the “r” word. He’s not likely to put his sneakers in the closet without a year-long celebration of his contributions to the NBA. Barring that, he’s too competitive not to take another crack at a ring. And, in this context, his moment of candor can likewise be seen as a bid for leverage: The Lakers would do well to further improve his supporting cast because, as he underscored, the only thing he’s interested in at this point is increasing his championship tally.
In other words, anything’s possible when it comes to James. In all likelihood, though, he’ll have a rosier outlook when he’s recharged and more removed from his latest setback. He’s nearing his departure, for sure, but, if his previous actions are any gauge, he will do so on his own terms and with meticulous calculation, not because he was backed into a corner. In the meantime, all and sundry should enjoy the ride with him for as long as it lasts.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.