When LeBron James first heard reports that the NBA was targeting a start date for the 2020-21 regular season on Dec. 22, just barely over two months after the Lakers had won the 2020 NBA championship, he was shocked.
“Wow,” James recalled exclaiming. “Oh shit.”
“Oh shit” is right, because as James pointed out during his first time chatting with the media since the Lakers returned to the UCLA Health Training, the Lakers are now facing the shortest offseason any NBA champion has ever had. Their first preseason game this week will fall on the two-month anniversary of their Finals-clinching, Game 6 win over the Miami Heat, and while James knew the offseason would be short, he didn’t think it would be this brief.
“Just being completely honest, I wasn’t expecting that, because the early conversations that were going on, I was hearing that it would be a mid-January start and that training camp would start after Christmas and that we’d get the opportunity to spend Christmas with our families,” James said.
Because James hasn’t gotten to take a Christmas vacation in nearly two decades as a result of the NBA season, he had planned one with his family. Instead of pulling what we could call “A Wholesome James Harden” and just arriving late, he decided to cancel that trip, and while this is still clearly a sooner resumption than he was hoping for, he’s also not going to complain about it.
“I’ve been blessed to be a part of 18 straight training camps, and I’ll never take that for granted,” James said.
But the Lakers can’t take James’ age-defying level of play for granted, either, and there are some signs that he and the team may take an even more cautious approach with his health this season.
Last year, every media member who asked James, Vogel or anyone else with the Lakers about load management got shut down pretty quickly. James clearly took pride in playing, was chasing an MVP and wanted to clap back at the haters who called him washed. James sat out a handful of games here and there if his groin soreness flared up, but his season was overall as unequivocal a rejection of the concept of load management as we’ve ever seen from a star of James’ age.
This year, things may be a bit different. James and the Lakers just played the longest season in NBA history, and James will turn 36 years old this month. In short, there are more reasons to be cautious than even last year, when James was coming off of the most serious injury of his career, and the NBA has even pulled back — as Tim Bontemps of ESPN reported on Monday — on punishing teams for resting key players without a good reason (emphasis mine).
The memo, which was obtained by ESPN, says that flexibility applies to teams playing back-to-back games, and presents examples of possible scenarios, including, “to rest a key veteran player who played a substantial role on a team that advanced deep into the 2020 Playoffs, or to rest a player who is still returning to full strength after recovering from COVID-19.”
More importantly than all of that, James and Vogel are hinting that the star is more open to load management than he was before, even if one has to read between the lines of their answers going from an unequivocal “no it will not happen” to “not rejecting it outright” as training camp begins.
“We’ve had preliminary conversations about (load management), but we’re both of the mindset to see how it plays out and evaluate each day and each week how he’s feeling, and not lock in to any set plan,” Vogel said. “It’s really going to be a day-to-day approach.”
James, who it should be noted is the ultimate shot-caller here — no matter what he says — echoed Vogel’s sentiments.
“I’ve always listened to my coaches. We had the same thing last year. We’re going to be as smart as we can be making sure that my body (is healthy) and making sure that I’m ready to go. Obviously every game matters, but we’re competing for something that’s high,” James said, referencing the importance of the Lakers’ title defense.
Vogel said that even in normal years that he tries to cancel practice for veteran teams in an attempt to find the balance between working enough to stay ready while also not “mentally fatiguing or physically fatiguing” the players on the roster. But still, even though he clearly doesn’t want the Lakers to lose their identity of playing harder than their opponents in every regular season game, and has mentioned that multiple times already in camp, he also admitted when pressed that keeping James healthy for the postseason — especially after the team has already won — is more important than getting him out there every night during the regular season.
“There is no doubt. The goal of every year, but in particular this year, is to make sure we’re healthy and whole going into the playoffs. That’s not to say that we’re going to take the regular season lightly,” Vogel said. “The guys that are on the floor are going to compete. I have the intention to recreate the identity of playing harder than their opponent every night, but our goal is definitely to make sure that we’re healthy come playoff time for sure.”
Some of that rest for James will come on the floor. Even back in 2018, Brian Windhorst of ESPN was writing about how James had “perfected the art of resting while playing,” and James has openly joked that he’ll be “cherry-picking the whole first half of the season” given how quickly the NBA is returning. Vogel wasn’t talking about either of those things specifically on Monday, but he says James knows how to take care of his body.
“I think he does a good job of evaluating what the right amount of work is for a practice,” Vogel said. “I made a joke with him last year that he should be retired from practice because of his years and tenure and all that stuff, and we’re always going to lead with how he’s feeling.
“We have to pull him back more than ask him to work,” Vogel continued. “It’s just part of him. He wants to do enough to stay in rhythm and be effective on the floor, and he has a good balance and good feel for that.”
For James’ part, he says that he started preparing his mind and body to resume as quickly as possible the moment after he was briefly overwhelmed to the point of unleashing an expletive about the season coming back, but he also seems to see the bigger picture, and that further maintenance and rest may be necessary over the course of the season. He’s no longer taking offense to the mere suggestion that he might need rest, a change from his approach last year.
“We don’t ever want to shortchange ourselves,” James said. “For me personally, it’s a fine line with me, but I understand that with the shortened season, I think it’s 71 days, the offseason is going to be the shortest offseason for any professional sports ever, so we’re very conscientious about what we’re doing going forward.”
For a more full and honest answer, though, we may have to check back after he’s had a few days to adjust to being back on the basketball court.
“Physically, right now I’m sore as hell. We’re day two of camp, but that’s been my whole career pretty much except probably year one or year two when I was 18 and 19,” James said, before quickly adding that he doesn’t have any injuries and has participate in everything the Lakers have done so far.
“And then mentally I’m great. I’m healthy, my family is healthy. I’m great mentally. I’m at a really good place in my life, so I’m solid.”
Mission No. 1 for the Lakers this season if they want to grab banner No. 18? Making sure James stays that way. Even if it means sitting out more than he might normally want to.