LeBron James’ career has been built on his keen anticipation of how on-court events will unfold. But this NBA offseason caught him off-guard.

Up until last month, James didn’t think the NBA would start again so quickly. He had gone so far as to plan a family vacation for Christmas, which he has not had off since 2007. Then he heard the league was aiming for a Dec. 22 start date.

“I was like, ‘Wow.’ And I said, ‘Oh, (expletive).’” he said. “Just being completely honest, I wasn’t expecting that.”

One canceled trip and a few weeks later, the Lakers are back in their El Segundo practice facility. But it’s taken just two days of Lakers training camp for the conversation to turn toward rest.

The questions about James’ workload have been pressing since the Lakers learned there would be just a little more than two months between seasons. James is as regimented as anyone when it comes to his physical health, with at-home workout facilities and rigorous discipline about recovery. But there is no substitute for the pickup games and months of offseason training that he didn’t get.

With his 36th birthday approaching at the end of the month, there are naturally discussions between James and the coaching staff about how much he’ll play early in the season to minimize his risk for injury. While Coach Frank Vogel acknowledged keeping James healthy for the spring is the priority, there’s no set, long-term plan as to how much (or how little) he’ll be on the court.

“We’re both sort of the mindset, let’s just see how it plays out, and evaluate each day, each week, how he’s feeling,” Vogel said. “Not lock into any set plan but have a sort of normal build-up of getting his legs back under him and get him used to playing live basketball again.”

That’s a concern for most of the Lakers who have had a shorter offseason than normal. Vogel said the majority of the team’s work through two days has been mostly drills and little contact. After Day 2, James acknowledged: “Physically, right now I’m sore as hell,” but added that is typical for the beginning of camp.

Some relief might be in line for when the season begins: ESPN reported that an NBA memo granted teams some flexibility to rest stars who “played a substantial role on a team that advanced deep into the 2020 Playoffs,” as well as players recovering from COVID-19. While resting stars for nationally televised games typically carries a penalty fine for teams, the relaxed restrictions could give the Lakers the ability to rest James, Anthony Davis and others from the returning 2020 title team during the five sets of back-to-back games they are scheduled to play in the first half of the season.

James has been remarkably durable, playing at least 74 games in 13 of his 17 NBA seasons (the lockout in 2011 and the pandemic in 2020 shortened two others under 74 games). He’s played more minutes than any active player (48,551) and has averaged more than 38 minutes per game in his career. While he’s spoken out against load management – intentionally missing select games to maximize recovery – he seems more open to the practice this year, with a 72-game schedule and a shortened offseason.

“Obviously, every game matters, but we’re competing for something that’s high,” James said. “We don’t ever want to shortchange our stuff. For me personally, that’s a fine line with me, but understanding that it’s a shortened season. I think it’s 71 days that the offseason is going to be, the shortest season for any professional sport ever. We’re very conscientious about what we’re going to do going forward as far as me personally.”

Amid the conversations of how James’ age will affect the coming season, coaches and teammates resolutely stated that he’s still impressing in the gym. New teammate Dennis Schröder said James’ off-court habits and time spent in the facility have been motivating. Vogel said of James: “He looks great. He’s moving well. He’s the best player in the world.”

His continued high level of play – coming off an MVP runner-up season and a fourth Finals MVP nod – is one of the reasons he was selected as a Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year (one of five) as well as his off-court work with More Than a Vote. He’s the only person ever selected SOTY three times by the publication, which he called “very humbling.”

The Lakers expect that track to continue, signing James to a two-year extension last week that will keep him with the team through 2023 when he’s 38 years old. James said the “best” thing about his new deal is that his son, Bronny James, will graduate high school that year, possibly putting the two in line to overlap in their NBA careers if the league re-opens the prep-to-pro pipeline.

“So I’ll have some options to see, for me personally, what I want to do forward, being around my family, being around my son more, or continue to play this game I love with great health and great spirits,” he said. “We’ll see.”


By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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