Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at LeBron James.
The Lakers’ (admittedly slim) championship chances this season rest squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James. Even after a season marred by injuries and pathetic roster construction, The King proved on more than a handful of occasions that he still has access to his best fastball, even if we saw it less frequently than during his first dozen years in the league.
Presumably entering this season at full health, LeBron remains capable of being the best player on the floor on any given night, against any team in the league.
Although that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for a player who has already earned a legitimate claim to be considered (at the absolute worst) the fourth-best player in the history of the sport, the 37-year-old is slicing through unprecedented territory like a hot knife through butter.
Despite his continued greatness through nearly two decades in the NBA, signs of age have begun to creep in around the edges of James’ game. In the regular season, LeBron hasn’t been a consistently elite defender or even played in more than 56 games in any of the non-championship-winning seasons he’s played in L.A.
And with yet another roster rebuilt basically from scratch, coming off of a season where he missed the playoffs, he has a lot of work to do if he wants to contend for his second title with the Lakers and the fifth of his storied career.
That’s a heavy load to ask of any player, let alone the guy who has had to do it more than anybody else, ever. Nonetheless, it’d be foolish to count LeBron out before he hangs ‘em up, especially when he still thinks he’s built for it.
What is his best-case scenario?
I don’t think it’s out of line to say that LeBron’s first-percentile outcome would be winning his fifth MVP. He led the pack of contenders before his ankle injury just two seasons ago, and nearly led the league in scoring last year (30.3 PPG) on an objectively bad Lakers team.
As of now, Vegas has LeBron’s preseason odds of winning the award at +1800, placing him 10th on the leaderboard. That might seem low for the player who’s won the award twice as many times as any other active player, but he’s still tied with Kawhi Leonard and ahead of last year’s top-five finisher and Guy Fawkes lookalike Devin Booker.
If LeBron’s still bringing his A-game (or close to it) on a night-to-night basis and carrying a shallow Lakers squad towards the top of a stacked Western Conference, there’s a strong chance he makes a push for the award, even if that scenario isn’t necessarily the season’s most likely outcome.
What is his worst-case scenario?
Since his disappointing performance in the 2011 Finals against the eventual champion Mavericks, LeBron has scarcely played an extended stretch of downright poor basketball. In fact, even last season, he was probably the best player on the floor in the preponderance of games he’s played in.
If healthy, LeBron’s excellence is as close to a sure thing as you can find in a league that is often governed by entropy.
With that being said, James’ health since joining the Lakers has been anything but a sure thing. After a groin injury in his first season with the team, LeBron escaped year two relatively unscathed on his way to a championship in the Orlando bubble. Then, an eversion ankle sprain took him out of the tail-end of the 2020-21 campaign before abdominal and knee injuries disrupted his otherwise impressive 19th career season.
Although the first two of those four physical maladies seemed like freak accidents at the time, coming from awkward collisions with opponents, the more recent pair occurred sans contact, perhaps suggesting an attrition of age beginning to take a real toll on the body that has already played more NBA minutes and scored more points than any other player in the history of the league.
LeBron might have the greatest range of outcomes between his best and worst-case scenarios of anybody in the entire league, other than at least one of, but arguably either of, his own superstar teammates.
If LeBron’s health continues to decline with his age, keeping him off the floor, the Lakers will have a hard time stringing wins together, let alone actually contending for a spot in the play-in tournament.
What is his most likely role on the team?
If he’s healthy and playing, the Lakers are LeBron’s team. That’s true now, and it’s a near certainty to remain the truth for as long as he chooses to remain with the purple and gold.
Despite claims of Anthony Davis as the “key” to the team’s success and LeBron proving he could flourish in new on-court roles last season (like playing center for the first time in his career), the Lakers will always defer to the greatest active player in the league to call the shots when it counts. And despite perennial protestations to play alongside a playmaking guard, LeBron has shown a penchant for preferring the ball in his hands in crunch time.
Father Time comes for everyone. Someday, LeBron won’t be “him.”
But for now, the smart money’s on the King to continue his reign, at least until proven otherwise.
Cooper is a lifelong Lakers fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.