Since entering the NBA in 2003, LeBron James has been as dominant as any player has ever been, even today. Players in their mid-30’s are not supposed to maintain All-NBA levels of play, but James has proven time and time again to be the exception to any rule. However, with abstaining a long-term injury for the first time in his career last year, and entering this season with over 46,000 minutes played, it is safe to ask what can realistically be expected of LeBron James this year.
To say there were high expectations for James coming into last year would be an understatement. LeBron James, the Lakers, Hollywood, the bright lights. It was seemingly a match made in basketball heaven. The Lakers had been in a tailspin long before Kobe Bryant retired, having finished below .500 the past five seasons. Even in accumulating highly drafted assets over the past several years, they were raw, inexperienced, and directionless. What they needed was a true All-Star to captain the young vessel, and that is what James was described to be.
The expectations were high. Their predicted 48-win total seemed conservative. We have all seen that if a team has LeBron James, that is all that matters. It was rocky at first, but James had the Lakers sitting right in the thick of things by December. They sat at 15-9 and had momentum on their side.
Then the injury happened.
On Dec. 25, James left the game against the Warriors with a groin injury. It wasn’t thought to be serious at first, but he would miss the next 17 games, in which the Lakers would go 6-11, all the meanwhile rumors swirled of the Lakers attempting to trade for Anthony Davis, which cast a shadow over the clubhouse.
Their once optimistic season now appeared to be hemorrhaging.
After Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram also eventually being sidelined, the Lakers would shut James down in late March, as a playoff berth looked increasingly unlikely. He would play a career-low 55 games that season and miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, which included eight-straight Finals appearances. His first season in purple and gold would be deemed unsuccessful.
If one looks at his overall stats, he seemed to continue his amazing ways. James averaged 27.4 points, 8.3 assists, and 8.5 rebounds while shooting at 51 percent from the field. The fact that James posted those averages at the age of 34 is truly remarkable.
As the focal point of the Lakers, he showcased his vintage offensive skillset at a level we have not seen before. This would come at the price of his defense, which cannot be praised in the same breath.
James’ slippage in this category can be traced back to his final seasons in Cleveland. In order to achieve his offensive prowess, he couldn’t exhaust the same level of energy on defense. Gone were the days of him guarding the opposing team’s number one option at crunch time.
Throughout the season, he would more likely than not be hidden on a non-threatening offensive player as a means to conserve energy.
This practice would continue as a Laker. His effort would lapse as well, as even routine switches and rotations would be botched. This was the price to pay for James’ dominance on the other end of the court.
This upcoming season will ask James to play a somewhat different role.
The team eventually landed its second star in Anthony Davis, and in doing so, gave up most of their young prospects and pushing all their chips into winning now rather than later.
In their first preseason game on Oct. 5, the two looked to be quite the one-two combo as James went 15-8-3 and Davis with 22-10-2, all in the first half.
James was noticeably pleased.
“I thought he was great from the beginning of the game, just his offset on the offensive end just to be able to get us extra possessions. Knocking down shots. I think he had five dunks in the first half.”
James is as intelligent as any player ever, so even he knows that going forward, Davis should be the driving force for this team. He is an MVP-level talent and is in his prime. He has never had a teammate as good as James, so it is quite possible we haven’t seen his best yet.
James will turn 35 this year, and his best years will be behind him, so taking a step back and being even more of a facilitator and less of the driving force would not only benefit the Lakers but would prolong James’ career as well. Less energy spent will no doubt save him for the games that truly matter later on.
For the Lakers to be successful, this is the version of LeBron James they need. It is not the LeBron James of old, but the LeBron James of now.
*preview photo credited to Eater
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