Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony announced his retirement on Monday, but it was a long time coming. Anthony didn't play in the NBA this season, after all, and he was in pretty good company on that front. Anthony was the second-to-last player from the legendary 2003 draft class to officially retire. Of course he, and his contemporaries, now stand in stark contrast to the last remaining member of their rookie class. LeBron James did play in the NBA this season. He even played on Monday, the day of Anthony's retirement, in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. 

James scored 40 points and came 4.3 seconds short of playing all 48 minutes as his Los Angeles Lakers were defeated by the Denver Nuggets, ending their season. The outcome was disappointing, but the performance that preceded it certainly wasn't. James is 38 years and old and just played an entire postseason on one foot... and he's still more than capable of torturing opponents half his age.

But Anthony's retirement was a grim reminder that nothing lasts forever. James has stood atop the NBA for two decades, but he, too, will eventually leave the game of basketball. "Eventually" just seemed a bit further off than Monday.

Yet after the Lakers were eliminated by the Nuggets, James cryptically hinted at a future outside of the NBA. "I got a lot to think about," James said after the game. "Just personally, with me moving forward with the game of basketball, I got a lot to think about." If there was any question about what he was implying, ESPN's Dave McMenamin confirmed in a conversation with him after his press conference that James is indeed considering retiring from the NBA.

The news is stunning in the context of James' own stated intentions. James said as recently as January that he planned "to be in this league for a least a few more years." He's spent years professing his desire to play with his son, Bronny, who will be a freshman at USC next season and is at least one year away from the NBA. James even signed a contract extension with the Lakers last offseason that hasn't even kicked in yet.

But James hadn't yet injured his foot in January. He still isn't certain if he will get surgery in this offseason, telling McMenamin that he will get an MRI and proceed from there. Surgery could cost him a meaningful chunk of next season. The sting of this season's end is still fresh on his mind, and it's not as though the Nuggets are going anywhere. The Lakers have paths to improvement over the summer, but so does the rest of the Western Conference. James may never have a better chance at a fifth championship than the one he just lost. His son might be a one-and-done prospect. He might need several years of college seasoning. James may not be willing or able to wait.

Whether or not the Lakers knew this was a possibility is unclear, but as much as their trade deadline moves were about improving the current roster, they undeniably set the Lakers up for some sort of post-James future. They acquired five players: D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Rui Hachimura, Mo Bamba and Jarred Vanderbilt. All five were 26 or younger when they were acquired. Austin Reaves is 24, and promising young guard Max Christie is 20. That group, alongside Anthony Davis, helped the Lakers go 8-5 during LeBron's 13-game absence in February and March. The Lakers wouldn't have made the playoffs without that stretch.

But the playoffs aren't the goal in Los Angeles. Laker success is measured in banners, and if the Lakers weren't a title team with James, they almost certainly won't be without him. They'd have to pivot without him, and fortunately, they'd at least have a bit of flexibility when doing so. Were James to retire, the Lakers would likely place him on the Voluntarily Retired list rather than give him a buyout. This would wipe his salary off of the books, but allow the Lakers to retain his rights should he ever choose to return. This approach would prevent him from returning to the league for one year without the unanimous approval of the NBA's owners, preventing the Lakers from using James' retirement as a way to generate artificial cap space and then re-sign him to a cheap deal in the middle of the season. If James does retire, then, the Lakers would expect to be without him for at least one year.

Bronny James will notably be draft-eligible one year from now, but the Lakers' ability to draft him is uncertain. The Pelicans own the Lakers' 2024 first-round pick, but have the right to defer it to 2025 if they so choose. The Lakers without James could be among the NBA's worst teams depending on their other moves and injuries. If so, the Pelicans would likely choose to keep their pick, preventing the Lakers from using Bronny to lure the elder James back to the NBA. The James family could work around this, theoretically, by pulling Bronny out of the draft if the Lakers don't have a pick and waiting until they eventually do. But how long would LeBron be willing to stay retired if an eventual return is on his mind? Even if the Lakers do have a pick, there is no guarantee Bronny will fall to it.

The Lakers would almost have to view any retirement from James as permanent, but if they do clear his salary, their books suddenly look quite clean. That would leave Davis and Christie as the only guaranteed contracts left on their ledger. Reaves has a tiny cap hold as a restricted free agency and Vanderbilt is woefully underpaid on a non-guaranteed deal, but beyond that foursome, the Lakers could credibly create practically limitless cap space to either re-sign their own free agents or chase external upgrades. Would the Lakers consider pursuing a max-level free agent like James Harden or Khris Middleton if they had the flexibility to do so? How about Kyrie Irving?

That's a name worth remembering as James considers his options. LeBron has never been subtle in exercising leverage over his employers. He's wanted Irving, his former teammate, to rejoin him in Los Angeles in the past. Perhaps this retirement talk is just his way of letting the Lakers know he expects them to aggressively pursue upgrades this offseason. "Get me Irving or I might walk away," essentially.

That is, of course, speculation. Here's what isn't: Davis is eligible for a contract extension this offseason. He can become a free agent as soon as 2024, and he initially came to Los Angeles to play with James. If the Lakers aren't contending immediately, they may be somewhat hesitant to make a lengthy commitment to the aging and injury-prone Davis. Moving on would untangle them from their complicated relationship with Klutch Sports, the agency that represents James, Davis and several other players that have spent time with the Lakers over the past half-decade.

Moving on from Davis would almost certainly mean a few years at the bottom of the standings. The Lakers owe only one of their next three first-round picks, and their fourth, going to Utah in 2027, is top-four protected. That gives the Lakers a bit of room to tank if they want to, but inertia is a powerful force in basketball. The Lakers would likely extend Davis if he is willing and attempt to figure out the future over time. Even if the Lakers can't lure a new co-star for him this summer, they'd have opportunities down the line. Stars will always want to play in Los Angeles.

Anthony certainly did. He spent his final NBA season in Los Angeles, but he went there, like Davis, to play with James. The Lakers know well the power one mega star can have. They spent five years lost in the wilderness after Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in 2013. James rescued them from that fate when he signed up in 2018. Yet even then, most of his 2003 draft-mates were on their way out of the NBA. Now they're all gone. James will be next, and whenever that time comes, the Lakers will have to pick up the pieces of a franchise he has spent the past five seasons leading.