EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Well before he could ever experience Father Time during his 21st NBA season, LeBron James has already taken a proactive measure.
It starts with his availability for the Lakers’ pre-season opener against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on Saturday (5:30 pm PT).
“I will not be playing in Saturday’s game, that’s for sure, in the Bay,” James said. “But we’ll see after that.”
Both James and the Lakers have offered positive reports during the team’s first three days of training camp after spending the past offseason rehabbing a tendon in his right foot. That injury sidelined him for 13 consecutive regular-season games and limited him in parts of the Lakers’ post-season run to the Western Conference Finals.
Nonetheless, the Lakers still plan to handle James with care throughout the 2023-24 season in hopes of maximizing his health and effectiveness. That leaves both the Lakers and James remaining flexible on how many exhibition games he will play.
“Six preseason games, so hopefully I can get to at least half of them,” James said. “But we’ll see. I think every game will dictate it.”
James played in four pre-season games before the 2022-23 season, including the team’s first two and final two. That marked a slight increase from the three he played in prior to the 2021-22 campaign. Whether the Lakers mirror that plan depends on conversations that Lakers coach Darvin Ham said he plans to have with James and the team’s medical staff, including James’ trainer (Mike Mancias).
Nonetheless, the Lakers sounded bullish about James’ upcoming season because as, Ham noted, “he’s in phenomenal shape.” Nothing captured that more than when James completed a post-practice workout on Thursday with Lakers forward Rui Hachimura and Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy.
As Lakers backup center Jaxson Hayes spoke to reporters about fitting in with Anthony Davis, Hayes soon stopped himself after witnessing a James’ highlight reel from across the court.
“Oh my gosh. Did you guys just see that?” Hayes told reporters standing around him. “LeBron just threw a crazy bounce alley-oop to himself, like a windmill. I was not ready for that. I’m sorry guys. That caught me off guard.”
Lakers teammates reacted similarly to James making a 3-pointer while standing out of bounds during Wednesday’s practice. No wonder James reported a positive training camp thus far.
“We’re off to a pretty good start,” James said. “It’s been a good couple days being able to get our system back into place, get the new guys caught up to speed. Not as fast, because we don’t want to go fast. We want to be very strategic and very cerebral about everything we’re putting in. But it’s been good energy and good vibes so far.”
What will that ultimately mean for James’ regular-season workload and production?
Ham said he hasn’t determined how many minutes he hopes to play James. But James’ four-year run with Davis with the Lakers might offer a reference point.
James logged heavier minutes last season (35.5) and in 2021-22 (37.2) compared to the Lakers’ NBA championship season in 2019-20 (34.6) and in 2020-21 (33.4). James’ workload largely, thus far, has depended on the quality of the team’s health and depth. That explains the difference between James’ minutes before last season’s All-Star break (36.3) and afterwards (32.2), which coincided with the Lakers’ trade deadline moves.
With the Lakers prioritizing continuity with their roster, they also hope to ensure continuity with James’ workload.
“The help that he has around him will allow him not to have to be full throttle in every practice and every preseason game,” Ham said of James. “He’s a prideful player, and that’s why he is who he is. He understands what the competition level is going to be like. He gets his work in, for sure. That puts us all at rest in terms of the totality of the team and the type of way he’s built. It just puts us at ease in terms of how we manage him.”
The NBA issued a new resting policy that will fine teams up to $1 million for sitting multiple star players in both marquee games and back-to-back slates. The new rule exempts players at least 35 years old, giving the Lakers some flexibility with resting James on back-to-backs.
It remains to be seen whether that means James will find it important to appear in the NBA’s in-season tournament, which begins with group play against the Phoenix Suns (Nov. 10), Memphis Grizzlies (Nov. 14), Portland Trail Blazers (Nov. 17) and Utah Jazz (Nov. 21). Las Vegas will host the NBA Cup semifinals (Dec. 7) and championship game (Dec. 9) at T-Mobile Arena.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to see once we get to that point, obviously,” James said. “I don’t want to think too far ahead, obviously. We got so much work to do here. We’re still in the preseason. But, we’ll see what happens once we get to that point.”
James also affirmed a wait-and-see approach on whether he will play in the 2024 Paris Olympics, although he expressed excitement that Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid plans to play for Team USA.
“I’ve always kept the main thing the main thing and right now it’s the Lakers, obviously, and us going through this,” James said. “Obviously with health, being optimistic and a lot of great things happening, I’m looking forward to seeing how that team constructs and what may happen or what could happen with the Olympic team in Paris. So, a lot of guys are excited about it. I’m excited about it as well. And obviously this is the main thing, so I know I can keep it that way.”