July 31, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Challenge of a new season came quicker than Lakers and LeBron James expected

LeBron James’ body hurts like hell. His championship memories are still too fresh. And the target that he and the Lakers wear is growing bigger.

Welcome to the new season, where the King’s reign is going to have to survive a diverse set of challenges, any of which could derail the Lakers’ hope to repeat as champions.

“I guess the bull’s-eye just becomes even greater, if that’s even possible,” James said Monday on a videoconference. “For me personally, the bull’s-eye has always been on my back —
or my front — since I entered the league. You add in the Laker name on top of that, the Lakers’ franchise, the bull’s-eye has been on this franchise for a long time as well.

“…But for me personally, last year, we won the ring. We won the title. And this year is a new challenge.”

That challenge came quicker than James expected. He, like some other NBA stars, had hoped for a start to the season in mid-January, giving him time to reset, to spend Christmas with his family and to refocus on what’s next.

But it’s going to be hard to escape the past because, really, it wasn’t all that long ago. The pandemic that pushed the NBA into the bubble is raging once again, and James’ off-court work that earned him his third Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award is far from done. But there does need to be some page-turning as James and the Lakers enter the early days of his 18th pro training camp.

“Oh s—,” James said when asked how he reacted to learning of the NBA’s Dec. 22 start date.

If there were any question about which direction James was looking, he settled them right before the Lakers got together to defend their title by agreeing to an extension guaranteeing he’ll be in Los Angeles through the 2022-23 season — his 20th in the league.

“I’ve never taken for granted every time I get an opportunity to play another season. I try to prepare my mind and my body and my spirit for a season, and see where it takes me,” James said of his future. “… At the end of this contract, I’ll be in Year 20. The best thing about it is the year I’ll be a free agent will be the same year my oldest son [Bronny] graduates high school. So I’ll have some options to see, for me personally, what I want to do going forward, being around my family, being around my son more or continue to play this game I love with great health and great spirits. We’ll see.

“I don’t look too far into the future as far as myself. I just give the game as much as I can in the time being and see what happens. I’ve been blessed to be a part of 18 straight training camps. And I’ll never take that for granted.”

Through two days of practices (the Lakers were still without Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie), James has looked like, well, the same player who was on the court helping the Lakers win their 17th title around two months ago.

“He looks great. He’s moving well,” coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s the best player in the world.”

Some of the challenges of 2020 don’t exclude even the best player in the world. His children are sick of remote learning and he hopes a greater sense of normalcy is in the near future.

“I mean, we listen to the experts and what’s going on with the climate as far as COVID. And keep your family in a mask when we leave the house or whatever the case may be. And be cautious where we travel to, be cautious who we are around,” James said. “Right now, you just try to do everything that you can to try to protect your family. And hopefully you can stay safe and stay healthy. I think that’s the most important thing, the main thing.”

And the effects of the tightened NBA offseason could have an impact on how the Lakers handle James as he enters Year 18. Load management, a concept he bristled against (while the rival Clippers embraced it) a season ago, aren’t such dirty words this time around.

“We’re going to be as smart as we can be on … making sure that my body, on making sure that I’m ready to go,” James said. “Obviously, every game matters, but we’re competing for something that’s high. 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.

“…We’re very conscientious about what we’re going to do going forward as far as me personally.”

But with James in a Lakers’ uniform, the conversation will always eventually shift towards championships. While it’s too soon to tell how all the new pieces general manager Rob Pelinka aggressively added will fit, James knows the message that needs to be conveyed.

“You’ve got guys just hungry to make a mark on their career and do it at a high level. And we’ve got some guys that’s here that’s not satisfied with just winning one title,” he said. “You add that all together, I think it’s going to be great for our ballclub. Playing this game, you want to be remembered. You want to be legendary. You want to be remembered … perhaps as one of the greatest teams, or the greatest players, whatever the case may be.

“The best way to do that to win, and to win at the highest level.”