Carmelo Anthony’s retirement this past week after being unsigned during the 2022-23 season means LeBron James is the remaining active player from the storied 2003 NBA Draft, though James flipped the Lakers’ playoff elimination into a bigger story when he questioned whether he would return for a 21st season.
Now, no one around the NBA really expects James to retire in the middle of his contract and after having been swept by the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, but his comments do force fans to ponder life after LeBron.
There was young Cleveland LeBron, who helped resurrect the Cavaliers. There was prime Miami LeBron, who won two championships in four years. There was Cleveland LeBron II, the savvy veteran leader who fueled a 3-1 comeback against the Warriors to bring the city its first major sports title in 52 years.
And now we have aging but still elite LeBron, who wins games just as much with his basketball IQ and fundamentals as he does with his impressive (but not peak) athleticism.
The NBA will miss James desperately, but there’s still so much to accomplish. He wants to go out with a championship and also play with his son Bronny James, an incoming freshman at USC. Still, it was apparent the 38-year-old James was exhausted from the Lakers’ tumultuous season and surprising playoff run.
“I don’t know. I love to play the game. I love to compete. I love to be out there for my guys, my teammates, whoever I have that particular year,” he said. “I think it was special in the fact that having a first-year coach, first-year coaching staff, to be able to take them to the Western Conference finals, I think that’s dope for [Darvin Ham] and his coaching staff going forward. That’s pretty amazing.
“It’s all about availability for me and keeping my mind sharp and things of that nature, being present on the floor, being present in the locker room and bus rides and plane rides, things of that nature. It’s challenging. It’s challenging, for sure. It was a very challenging season for me, for our ball club, and, obviously, we know whatever went on early on or whatever the case may be. It was cool, a pretty cool ride.”
James wants to watch Bronny play basketball, and James’s younger son, Bryce, is a rising high school junior who may emerge as a better prospect than his brother.
“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,” James said. “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 what happens going forward. I don’t know. 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.”
The Lakers were bested by a Nuggets team featuring perhaps the best player on Earth in Nikola Jokic. While Joel Embiid won the regular-season MVP, Jokic played like an MVP during the postseason. Jokic, a two-time MVP, is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists. He has been remarkable as the Nuggets are 12-3 in the playoffs.
“I know how great Jokic is,” James said. “There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of them where you are always off balance when you are guarding a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that.
“So you already knew you was going against a beast once the series started, and not only just about his game. Everybody gets cracked up into his stats, but I don’t think a lot of people talk about, like, this part of his game [indicating cerebral]. Maybe it’s not talked about it, because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”
Denver coach Mike Malone has openly complained his team does not receive enough respect from the national media. Even national broadcasters and analysts marvel at Jokic when they see him in person as if he hasn’t been dominating for nearly a decade.
“Me and [Anthony Davis] were just talking in the locker room for a little bit; I think we came to the consensus, [Denver] is one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years,” James said. “Just well orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth. And one thing about their team, when you have a guy like Jokic, who as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that.
“And even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head, Larry Bird style, and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in, like he did four or five times this series,” James said with a laugh and a tip of the cap.
Believe it or not, there were questions about whether Ham could handle the job when the club sunk to 13th in the Western Conference. But general manager Rob Pelinka reshaped the roster at the trade deadline and the Lakers took off. They are still far from being a Western Conference favorite, but they compiled a defensive-minded club to Ham’s liking.
“It was nothing but growth, nothing but an education, and you know, staying with it, trying to remain consistent,” Ham said. “I told those guys their consistency of coming to the gym from the time when we had pieces, talented pieces on the roster, but still some that did not necessarily fit perfectly together to the point where we did find the right pieces and they fit smoothly; the culture that was set, reset, in terms of competitiveness, togetherness, accountability. You know, us coming to the gym each and every day trying to get better at something and being focused on getting better at something, was nothing short of amazing.
“I just told [the players] to take some time to take stock of what this meant. I thanked them again for the season, for supporting me, for communication, giving it a chance to work by buying in, and then everyone coming in and having a focus to get better.”
After falling short of several previous jobs despite being considered a rising coaching prospect as an assistant with the Bucks, Ham was the primary reason the Lakers bounced back from a lottery team to the second-best club in the Western Conference. Of course, being swept is below Lakers standards, but the club made considerable progress from last season’s 33-49 record.
“From a mental-spiritual standpoint, I have the best job in the world,” Ham said. “I thank God every day. It’s tough to really be upset. I’m extremely disappointed, but I’d be really distraught and upset if we didn’t come out and compete. No one wants to get swept. Don’t get me confused. Like no one, especially within myself, within that locker room, everyone we have in our building, no one wants to go out like this.”
The Lakers have some roster decisions on tap. D’Angelo Russell is an unrestricted free agent, so is Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schröder, Austin Reaves, and Troy Brown Jr. Reaves is a certainty to return, but the Lakers will need to replenish their bench to support an aging James and oft-injured Davis.
“Now, investigate the process; try to strengthen yourselves, whether it’s your game, your body, understand what we are trying to do moving forward in terms of reestablishing the winning culture around here,” Ham said. “To go from not being thought much about to start the season, to now finishing in the top final four. Coming into next year, there’s going to be expectations, as it should be within this organization, and what this organization has meant to the NBA and to the world of sports as a whole.”
Portland ponders Lillard, draft pick
The Trail Blazers have some difficult decisions to make. They have the third overall pick in the upcoming draft, meaning they can select a potential cornerstone, a player who could be a perennial All-Star if they make the right decision. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Damian Lillard has been that guy for the past decade, with just one appearance in the Western Conference finals to show for it.
He has made a commitment to Portland, one of the league’s smaller markets. He has made it clear he does not want to wait for another rebuild. The Blazers could also package that third pick, which may be a shortsighted move, along with another contract to obtain an All-Star-caliber player to pair with Lillard.
The potential players available at No. 3, depending on who Charlotte selects after San Antonio picks Victor Wembanyama, are intriguing. It could be Scoot Henderson or one of the Thompson twins (not the ‘80s group, but two top prospects from the Overtime Elite club).
The Blazers have rebuilt recently, starting with Anfernee Simons, along with Shaedon Sharpe and the recent acquisition of Cam Reddish. But another lottery pick doesn’t turn this team into a contender, despite the presence of Lillard.
ESPN draft experts Jonathan Givony and Bobby Marks assessed Portland’s possibilities and whether the Blazers would be making a mistake by dealing the third overall pick.
“My question all along was: Does the roster timeline fit Damian’s?” Marks said. “That’s the reality of it here. When you’re looking at your third pick in the draft and you’re looking at another young player to come along with Shaedon Sharpe, who you drafted last year, and you already have Anfernee Simons here, is it going to push this team into a top six? It’s probably unlikely considering that your flexibility in the offseason really is to retain Jerami Grant and Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish.
“The big question is that, you know, it’s been like this all season as far as how does this roster fit the timeline of Damian Lillard? That’s the reality.”
The question is how long Lillard will be willing to wait. Will he endure another year of growing pains among his Generation Z teammates with a minuscule chance of a playoff appearance? There are a handful of teams interested in Lillard, but his contract — the final year being for $63 million in 2026-27 — could be a deterrent.
“I just have an uneasy feeling that a year from now you might be asking me the same question,” Marks said. “Like, how are things going to change in Portland? We have seen two years in a row basically kind of played out the string. We have seen two years in a row going to the lottery with top-six or top-seven picks.
“You take the best available no matter if Damian’s on your roster or not, and then you kind of figure it out from there.”
The Blazers made the lottery jump from fifth to third, making the decision even more intriguing. Wembanyama is the best draft prospect since LeBron James. But Henderson, Brandon Miller, and the Thompson twins are also considered premium prospects, just not on Wembanyama’s level.
The Celtics know about the impact of third overall picks. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were taken third in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
“That’s a great stroke of luck for them considering where they started the season,” Givony said of the Blazers’ lottery jump. “And a lot of people after Victor, I mean, they look at this as a three-player draft, so they’re right there in that conversation at three. They’re going to be staring at either Brandon Miller or Scoot Henderson, and I’m sure they would be excited about either one of them.
“Also, it opens up a lot of trade opportunities. There are a lot of teams around the NBA that would be very excited to pick either of those guys. So, you’re right there in the mix. You’re going to be fielding calls from pretty much every team in the NBA, and you just have a lot of flexibility now to either draft a player or to make a trade or to do whatever you want. So, I think that they have to be excited to have moved up on lottery night.”
The Celtics’ coaching staff will likely have to be reshaped in the offseason as new Rockets coach Ime Udoka is expected to add three Boston assistants — Ben Sullivan, Aaron Miles, and Mike Moser — to his staff when the Celtics season concludes. Udoka added those three to his staff when he accepted the Celtics job in June 2021. Udoka already has added former Nets assistant Royal Ivey . . . The Pistons have narrowed their coaching search to former Warriors assistant Jarron Collins, Bucks assistant Charles Lee, and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie. Ollie is apparently the leader for the position as the Pistons are desperately trying to cultivate their young talent into a contending team . . . Another intriguing coaching candidate is former Celtics and Pistons assistant Jerome Allen, who has been important to the growth of Tatum in Boston and Cade Cunningham in Detroit. The Pistons opted for a different direction of Dwane Casey’s staff after he resigned after the season to take a front-office position. Allen could also be a candidate to return to Boston as an assistant, considering his close relationships with several Celtics . . . Former Celtics and 76ers coach Doc Rivers has made it clear he wants to coach again by throwing his name into the Suns competition as the organization tries to determine a direction after firing Monty Williams. Williams, meanwhile, could be a candidate for the Milwaukee job as the Bucks seek a fresh voice and innovative coach after Mike Budenholzer . . . There may not be a player who has made more money this postseason than Miami’s Caleb Martin, who has been brilliant in the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. Martin, whose brother Cody plays for the Hornets, was waived by the Hornets before signing with the Heat. He eventually agreed to a three-year, $20 million deal with a player option for the 2024-25 season at $7.1 million. Considering how well Martin has played in the postseason, it’s a formality Martin will opt out of his contract after next season and become an unrestricted free agent. The Heat have done a masterful job of developing young, undrafted talent in recent years and Martin is the latest example. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson are also key players who were undrafted. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra does not like those players being referred to as “undrafted” considering how far they’ve progressed.