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After fulfilling his role as an NBA champion, Finals MVP and social justice ambassador for nearly three months on a quarantined campus in Florida, LeBron James planned to do something for the first time during his NBA career.
He planned to take a Christmas vacation with his family. But James soon had to cancel that because the NBA will begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22, not late January as he initially predicted.
“‘Oh (expletive),’” James recalled saying to himself. “I’m just being completely honest. I wasn’t expecting that.”
After all, the Lakers had just concluded last season by winning an NBA title against the Miami Heat on Oct. 11. Less than two months later, the Lakers have just started training camp.
No wonder James described himself as “super sore” after practice Monday. This marked the Lakers’ second group workout exactly 58 days after hoisting the championship trophy.
In normal seasons, NBA teams would have three months between the end of the NBA Finals and the beginning of training camp. They would also have almost another month before the next season begins.
So LeBron, who turns 36 in December, enters his 18th NBA season wrestling with a tough question. Should he subscribe to load management?
“We’re going to be as smart as we can be with making sure my body and making sure I’m ready to be available,” James said. “Obviously every game matters. But we’re competing for something that is high.”
The Lakers, if they repeat, would eclipse the Boston Celtics for the most NBA titles in league history. James would collect his fifth NBA ring and further cement his legacy that general manager Rob Pelinka hopes includes a retired Lakers jersey. To travel down that road, however, the Lakers appear deliberative on which path to follow in a shortened 72-game regular-season and subsequent playoffs.
That begins with the Lakers assessing how much James will practice in training camp and play in any of their four exhibition games, which begins Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Lakers coach Frank Vogel considered it “too early” to finalize James’ workload regimen, but he outlined his philosophy.
“We don’t want to underdo it, and then he’s not ready to play in real games. But we obviously don’t want to overdo it,” Vogel said. “So really don’t know where that’s going to land. I expect we’ll probably see him some, but not a ton. Enough for him to get him ready for opening night.”
Still, James said that plan is “a fine line with me.”
On Monday, James said he participated in all drills aware of the importance of maintaining continuity with familiar teammates (Anthony Davis) while establishing chemistry with new teammates (Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol). He reiterated last season’s philosophy that he would play in every game if he and the Lakers’ medical and coaching staff considered him well enough to dress.
“I’m great. I’m healthy,” James said. “My family’s healthy. I’m great mentally. So I’m in a really good place in my life. I’m solid.”
James has kept that perspective despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced his three children — Bronny, 16, Bryce, 13, and Zhuri, 5 — to take classes remotely. James said he and his family have stayed disciplined with mask-wearing and social-distancing rules. He also expressed appreciation for his children’s teachers.
“Just started preparing my mind and preparing my body and just trying to get as much stuff as I could do with my family,” James said of his offseason. “I’m spending as much time as I could with them before getting back to the grind.”
How James handles that grind goes beyond how he trains, diets and sleeps. It also can hinge on his teammates.
After agreeing to a five-year, $190 million extension, Davis could relieve James’ workload with scoring and defense. Lakers forward Jared Dudley even called for Davis to pursue the NBA regular-season MVP award.
“I don’t have any expectations for Anthony Davis,” James said. “I know what he brings to the game. He’s special. He’s one of the best players in the world.”
James argued that his departing teammates “helped us win a title,” including Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Avery Bradley. But he expects the team’s new arrivals “to make an immediate impact on our team” for reasons beyond their skillset.
“You got guys who are hungry to make a mark on their career and do it at a high level,” James said. “You got some guys that are here and are not satisfied with just winning one title. So you add that all together, it’ll be great for our ball club.”
Still, the Lakers are mostly banking on James after winning a Finals MVP and avoiding a major injury only a year after he missed 27 games with a strained left groin.
That explains why Pelinka said “it wasn’t even a debate” for the Lakers to sign James to a two-year, $85 million extension that will keep him under contract through the 2022-23 season.
By then, James would be 38 and in his 20th NBA season. Though James kept the option open toward extending his career to coincide with Bronny’s expected high school graduation, the Lakers star conceded he’s uncertain if this deal will be his last.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stick around this game,” James said. “I never take for granted every time I get an opportunity to play another season. Just trying to prepare my mind and my body and spirit for a season, and see where it takes me.”