Column: The Lakers have no choice. They must do whatever it takes to keep LeBron James

LeBron James points during a Game 5 playoff loss to the Nuggets.
Will LeBron James return to the Lakers lineup next season? James was frustrated as time ran out during the team’s Game 5 playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets Monday night, ending the Lakers’ season.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
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LeBron James raised the microphone to his face.

“Ummm,” he started.

James smiled and looked at me.

“I’m not going to answer that,” he said.

The Lakers fight to the finish in Game 5 at Denver, but Jamal Murray again hits the clutch shot with four seconds left to give Nuggets the victory.

April 29, 2024

James nodded.

“Appreciate it,” he said, still smiling.

With that, he walked off the dais.

The question I asked that James declined to answer: Did he have any thoughts on Monday night that he might have played his last game for the Lakers?

The Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs, a 108-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round series, sending them into an offseason of uncertainty.

The Nuggets' Aaron Gordon drives past Austin Reaves and D'Angelo Russell.
Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon drives past Lakers guards Austin Reaves, left, and D’Angelo Russell during Game 5 of their first-round playoff series Monday in Denver.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The most critical of these questions pertains to the 39-year-old James, who can decline his $51.4-million option for next season.

When James gave his non-answer after the game, he sounded as if he were negotiating with the Lakers, but this wasn’t about money. The financial parameters for his anticipated return are already set: The most the Lakers can offer him is $162 million over three years.

This is about influence.

He wants better players around him. He has asked for that in the past, and he indirectly asked for that again when replying to a question about whether he gained confidence in the team based on its improved form late in the regular season, as well as in the series against the Nuggets.

“No,” James said. “We lost. I’m not a participation guy.”

The Lakers aren’t going to buy out LeBron James’ contract or trade Anthony Davis, so fans better get used to the team underachieving in the playoffs.

April 29, 2024

The Lakers were supposed to be done with James making demands after the disastrous trade they made for Russell Westbrook at James’ behest. Yet, somehow, here they are two years later, with James armed with as much leverage as he has ever had.

What happened?

The Lakers are what happened. General manager Rob Pelinka could soon be hiring his third head coach in five years, not because Darvin Ham is any more at fault than Pelinka is for this lost season, but because the alternative to firing Ham would be for Pelinka to fire himself.


How organizations are run are reflections of their owners, and the uncomfortable truth is that the Lakers won’t win another championship until the Buss family sells the team or another generational superstar somehow drops into their laps, as James did six years ago.

The Nuggets' Jamal Murray falls back and scores the game-winning shot over Laker Austin Reaves' extended arms
The Nuggets’ Jamal Murray scores the game-winning shot under pressure from Laker Austin Reaves Monday night in Denver.
(Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)

If James isn’t the only thing the Lakers have going for them, he’s certainly the best thing. The Lakers aren’t contending for championships these days, but they can still occasionally trick their fans into thinking they have a chance, and that’s a credit to James, who averaged 25.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists in his 21st season.

James is why the Lakers can never be counted out. He was that once again in their elimination game, during which he registered 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.

Without him, they would morph back into what they were between Kobe Bryant’s retirement and James’ arrival, only without the lottery picks. The Lakers collected some talented players then, but what most distinguished that era was the complete absence of hope.

A franchise that defines itself by championships can’t return to that place, and James is smart enough to know this, which is the most likely explanation for why he was as cagey as he was in his postgame exit interview.

He spoke about what his children had going on in their lives and about the USA basketball training camp ahead of the Olympics, but not much about his future beyond that.

There is a consensus by NBA talent evaluators that the eldest son of LeBron James could be a second-round draft pick.

April 5, 2024

“I haven’t given it much thought,” James said. “Obviously, at some point, I’ll sit down with Rich [Paul], my agent, and I’ll sit down with my family and we’ll see what’s best, what’s best for my career. So, we’ll cross that when we need to.”


Whether they believe him or not, the Lakers had to feel uncomfortable hearing this. Considering how many future first-round picks they’ve already traded, they’re understandably reluctant to trade any more, especially if the upgrades would be marginal.

James said he hadn’t “given much thought lately” to the possibility of playing on the same team as his son Bronny, but perhaps the Lakers can satisfy him by drafting the 19-year-old USC guard.

Might as well.

The Lakers might not like being pressured this way by one of their employees, but what other choice do they have? The Lakers aren’t the Lakers anymore. LeBron James is the Lakers. The alternative is considerably worse.