Even LeBron James, a basketball cyborg who has spent most of his career toeing the line as to whether he’s mortal on the court, found his match last season. James missed the majority of the second half of the season with an ankle sprain before playing through the injury late in the regular season and into the postseason.
However, he was very clearly never at 100% during those contests, even after delaying his comeback until the final games of the regular season. On Monday, James revealed the true extent of his injury for the first time, and how long into the offseason it took for him to recover from the ankle sprain.
“It took a while,” James said after the team’s final practice of the preseason. “It took a while. I didn’t do much basketball stuff for probably like the first two months of the summer — which is very rare for me — because my ankle wasn’t responding how we would like for it to respond.”
Father Time may be undefeated, but it was summertime James needed to fight him this time around.
“The best thing about the summertime is that I had time. I had time to really just give it an opportunity to get ready to where my ankle was ready to go,” James said. “I was always training. I wasn’t on the basketball court, but I was always doing other stuff, training, pushing and seeing things I could do with my ankle until I got to a point where I didn’t feel any sharp pains anymore, and my flexibility was back to where it was before.”
Those sharp pains James mentioned on Monday were one of the reasons for his delayed comeback. After returning to the floor on April 30 against San Antonio and playing two games, James went back to the sideline for two more weeks before returning for a back-to-back on the final weekend of the season.
But even with the nature of how he was injured and it being entirely out of James’ control, questions have risen about whether he should take a step back this season to ensure his health for the postseason. But as has been the case throughout his career, James balked at the idea of playing fewer minutes or taking nights off this season.
“No,” James said. “For one, I don’t play the game thinking about injuries. And also, I feel worse when I play low minutes.”
Throughout his tenure as head coach, Frank Vogel has deferred at least some of the decision-making to his star players when it comes to how many games they’ll play and how many minutes they’re comfortable playing. On Monday, he indicated that would continue to be the plan.
“We will be intelligent,” Vogel said of managing James’ workload. “Obviously you probably don’t want to have him play 82 games, but we’re not going to pre-script X amount of nights off. We’ll take it as it comes throughout the year.”
Across his three years in Los Angeles, James has averaged 34.5 minutes per game, and a career-low 33.4 minutes per game last season. Last year, though, was an exception and not the beginning of a trend for James, Vogel said.
“We still want to be around the 34 (minute) range as a script,” Vogel said. “The 34-36 (minute range) and then obviously hope for situations where if the group out there on the floor is playing well then we can leave him out there a little longer.
“In some ways, if he stays over there too long and gets cold, it’s worse for him than to get back in there. Especially because he’s been playing this type of rotation for so long.”
Similar to James, Vogel said the Lakers intend to keep Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook’s minutes in the mid-30s range as well this season, though they certainly will have a similar level of input in potential nights off throughout the season as James does.
What remains clear is that neither the Lakers nor James are treating last season’s injury as any sort of warning or precursor, but instead as a one-off fluke caused by a player diving under him, and not some sign of age-related decline. And when considering the large sample size of James’ career and his relative lack of injuries thus far (knock on wood), it’s a fair assumption to make.
For now, James will look to continue to defy conventional wisdom on the basketball court... and possibly look to avoid any role players diving at his legs this season. That may be more productive than playing a few less minutes here and there.