EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The last time we saw LeBron James on the court, we saw a player exhausted from carrying a heavy workload, enduring injuries and battling the future NBA champions.
Yet four months after even considering retirement following the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference, James should enter his 21st NBA season actually feeling more optimistic that he can delay Father Time’s unforgiving touch.
“It’s staggering for a player who has 20 years under the hood already and is preparing for 21 like he’s a rookie,” Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ executive vice president and general manager, said at the team’s practice facility on Thursday. “He’s been doing 6 a.m. workouts. He’s probably been in our building as much as any player this offseason.”
The same thing can be said about Anthony Davis, who has spent all summer either shooting, boxing or circuit training. The Lakers did not view this as the usual regimen that any player completes in his offseason so he can enter training camp reporting that he feels in the best shape of his life. The Lakers also looked at this routine as validation for why they granted Davis a three-year, $186 million extension this past summer despite playing in only 194 out of a possible 308 regular-season games in the past four seasons due to various ailments.
“He’s training more this offseason than I’ve seen with him as a Laker,” Pelinka said. “He’s taken on that leadership mantle. I think he knows that when the franchise invests in him, like we did this summer, he’s going to return that.”
Therefore, the Lakers enter the 2023-24 season with one important reason to feel bullish about their chances to win an NBA championship, their 18th overall and their first since 2020. Expect the Lakers’ two star players to perform at their absolute best and healthiest.
Even if James will become only the sixth player in NBA history to play 21 seasons, expect him to actually play with more effectiveness and durability than even last season when he eclipsed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Even if Davis still makes Lakers fans gasp every time he takes a hard fall, expect him to actually stand right back up and seriously contend for the NBA’s regular-season MVP award.
So what warrants such pre-season optimism?
Let’s start with James, who has shown through four NBA championship runs in 10 NBA Finals that you should never bet against him. The Lakers said James has fully recovered from a right foot injury that sidelined him for 13 games from late February through late March and limited him during the playoffs. James has exceeded his career scoring averages (27.2 points per game) in the past two seasons in 2021-22 (30.3) and in 2022-23 (28.9). And James has organized off-season workouts that included a fully-attended team minicamp in San Diego and personal workout sessions with Rui Hachimura.
“Any team LeBron’s played for, it’s been pretty uniform that his work sets the tone,” Pelinka said. “There has been nothing but an increase in seeing that here.”
Let’s continue with Davis, whom Ham correctly argued is “one of the top five best defensive players and two-way players.” The Lakers reported that Davis also fully recovered from a stressed right foot that sidelined him last season for 23 games. Sure, the Lakers are not naïve that Davis could labor through more injuries. Nonetheless, they have also felt encouraged that Davis has not missed significant time since late January. Otherwise, Davis missed only three more games while the Lakers preserved him on back-to-backs and dominated through pain in other games. Following Davis’ extensive off-season training, Ham described Davis as looking “stronger, quicker and more explosive.” Don’t be surprised if the 30-year-old Davis spends his 11th NBA season eclipsing his career highs in points (28.1), rebounds (12.) and blocks (2.6) as he posted during his seven years in New Orleans.
“There’s a huge, huge road still ahead of him in how he can lead this franchise,” Ham said, “and hopefully put some more banners up here.”
Lastly, the Lakers’ chances to add their 18th banner hinge on the same external reasons James and Davis should experience healthier and more productive seasons.
The Lakers spent their offseason maintaining the perfect balance between keeping the key ingredients that ensured a push to the Western Conference Finals as a Play-In team while improving on the margins. They retained incumbent free agents that ensured offensive chemistry (D’Angelo Russell), thrived as a scorer/defender/shooter (Austin Reaves) and became what Ham called a “Swiss Army knife” (Hachimura). The Lakers also added more backcourt depth (Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish) and frontcourt help (Jaxson Hayes, Christian Wood).
Ham named Russell and Reaves as their definitive starting guards partly because of the chemistry they forged with James and Davis. Yet, Ham also plans to have an open competition for the final starting spot and bench rotation in hopes that the increased depth will relieve the burden off of James and Davis. While Ham will experiment with bigger lineups to complement Davis’ interior defense, Ham will also field smaller lineups to help James with additional scoring help.
“’Bron does a great job taking care of himself,” Ham said. “But the team that’s around him now and the pieces that we have in places, those guys are going to step up and do a lot of heavy lifting early.”
That marks a stark contrast with what James inherited the past two seasons. Amid overlapping injuries, Russell Westbrook’s uneven fit and inconsistent 3-point shooting, James became the Lakers’ predominant scorer. That’s usually expected of a team star player. Not James, who prides himself as the team’s leader more with his locker room influence and passing.
That resulted in James nursing a larger workload than previously expected in 2021-22 (37.2 minutes per game) and 2022-23 (35.5) compared to what he logged in the Lakers’ 2020 title season (34.6) and in 2020-21 (33.4). Consider James’ minutes last season before the All-Star break (36.3) and after (32.2), which coincided with the Lakers’ trade deadline moves.
Ham mused that James can reduce his workload because he “was grandfathered in by the rest rules” that makes exceptions for players over 35 to sit out certain back-to-back games. In reality, James can scale back because of the Lakers’ improved depth.
That will allow James to remain dominant while playing more efficiently as a playmaker. That will enable Davis to assume a bigger scoring role. And that will ensure both James and Davis master those job descriptions well while staying mostly healthy.
Does that mean James and Davis will play all 82 games? Of course not. It appears more likely Davis will garner more attention for his on-court play than his time in the trainer’s room. It seems more plausible that James will spark more intrigue for how he’s punching back against Father Time instead of absorbing another vicious blow.
“We can surround both he and AD with these players who are coming in eager to contribute and eager to show that they can impact winning,” Ham said. “That’s going to allow us to be able to be more efficient with game-to-game minutes.”
And that’s going to allow James and Davis to have a much better and healthier season than they experienced in recent years.