What’s next for Lakers, LeBron James after NBA playoff sweep by Nuggets

LOS ANGELES — When LeBron James left the postgame dais at Crypto.com Arena with a cryptic message about his future, the Los Angeles Lakers’ offseason turned far more mysterious.

After the Denver Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals Monday, the Lakers went from “How we did improve for next season?” to “Has LeBron James played his final game?”

James hinted at an unknown future, suggesting retirement is possible, and if he decides to retire before next season, the Lakers’ immediate future is flipped upside down. The Lakers’ direction changes if James doesn’t play next season.

It’s a fluid situation.

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Los Angeles’ season ends with satisfaction and disappointment. In one way, it was a successful season. They Lakers started the season 2-10, were 23-28 on Jan. 30 and in 11th place with 11 games remaining in the regular season. They made the play-in game, got the No. 7 seed and beat No. 2 Memphis and No. 6 Golden State, last season’s champions, to reach the conference finals.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) reacts to a call against the Denver Nuggets during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) reacts to a call against the Denver Nuggets during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.

Conversely, the Lakers fell short of expectations. When it’s a storied franchise like the Lakers with James and Anthony Davis, a championship is the goal.

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“I don’t get a kick out of making a conference (Finals) appearance,” James said. “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.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say James returns. What do the Lakers need to do to improve?

What are the Lakers’ contract situations?

Los Angeles, which will have money to spend in free agency even if James returns, has a collection of free agents and players under contract for next season.

James, Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt, Max Christie are the only players with guaranteed contracts for next season. Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba have non-guaranteed deals.

D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schroder are free agents, and Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura are restricted free agents. Reaves, who made $2.4 million in his two NBA seasons, is due for a significant salary increase − maybe $15-20 million a season, and the Lakers have the right to match any contract offer from another team to retain him. The undrafted second-year guard was the Lakers’ third scoring option against Denver

Hachimura also showed more potential when playing alongside James and Davis and is an offseason priority.

Roster upgrades are necessary for Lakers

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka made improvements to the team at the trade deadline, acquiring Russell, Hachimura, Beasley and Vanderbilt. They all played a role in helping the Lakers’ get this far.

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But that also wasn’t good enough to beat the Nuggets who outexecuted the Lakers with the outcome undetermined in the fourth quarter of every game.

Russell, in particular, struggled offensively against the Nuggets, and the Lakers need another reliable scorer. It wasn’t Russell with a Final appearance at stake.

Pelinka will be active in the free-agent and trade market once that arrives June 30. He will have money for free agents, and the Lakers also have the Nos. 17 and 47 picks in the June draft.

Is Kyrie Irving a viable option for the Lakers?

Acquiring Kyrie Irving from Brooklyn seemed like a possibility before the trade deadline. The Lakers didn’t want to trade all their assets to the Nets who were reluctant to trade Irving to the Lakers for a reunion with James.

Irving was traded to Dallas and could still end up with the Lakers. He is a free agent, strengthened his relationship with James and attended at least two recent Lakers playoffs games.

He would be an upgrade at the point guard spot, a proven and reliable scorer who would take pressure off James and Davis. It would require some savvy wheeling and dealing and potential financial sacrifice from Irving, but it’s not out of the question. For the Lakers, the potential for chaos might be worth the possible payoff.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What’s next for Lakers, LeBron James after NBA playoff loss to Nuggets

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