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Can LeBron James continue to defy odds in his unprecedented 21st season?

LeBron James’ ability to continue to defy odds while also evolving his game will be a key driver of the Lakers title chances.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! Over the last several weeks, we have been writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we end our series with the one and only LeBron James.

LeBron James is coming off the most productive and successful 20th NBA season of all time.

Full stop.

With averages of 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists while shooting 50% from the field, James carried the Lakers for extended stretches while Anthony Davis missed time with injury and was named to Third Team All-NBA for his efforts.

And if that wasn’t enough, James also became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer halfway through the season, breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s longstanding record to give himself another accolade in a career that, when it’s all said and done, will likely be the most decorated and accomplished of any player to ever play the game.

Of course, it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows for LeBron. The season was a grind of a campaign, and one in which James had to expend more energy and resources than anyone would have liked to uplift the team when Davis was injured and when trying to help dig the Lakers out of their disastrous 2-10 start to the season.

On too many December and January nights, LeBron was needed to not only score 30+ points and be the focal point of the team’s attack, but do so while racking up high-minute nights that came with no reprieve, only to then get back up and do it all again a night later.

And then when reinforcements in the form of a trade deadline reshaping of the roster finally did come, James suffered a foot injury that sidelined him a month and forced him to watch as his newly formed team tried to gel and come together without him. When he finally did return, it was clear he was not yet fully healthy, lacking the same level of explosion and burst he used to blast by teams just a few months prior.

In the playoffs, James showed a steeliness and determination to carry the Lakers as much through his will and sheer force of presence and physicality as his understanding of when to take on that mantle and when to defer. James went out on his shield in the Western Conference Finals, playing all but four seconds of the series-ending sweep at the hands of the Nuggets; a game that in the aftermath of it all he openly questioned whether he’d be back to play this season at all.

James is back, though. And he’s ready to give it another go with a group that not only gives him as much continuity as he’s seen since coming to the Lakers five years ago, but one that is young, talented and hungry to help him reach the promised land one more time.

What is his best-case scenario?

Let’s be honest here. If this season plays out in any other way than LeBron James holding up another Larry O’Brien trophy in June, this season will be a disappointment. There is literally no other best-case scenario for James or his legacy than him getting to championship No. 5 overall, winning his second with the Lakers, and helping the organization streak past the Celtics for the most in the history of the league.

Of course, to even get to that point, there are benchmarks along the way that would be baked into the pathway toward this goal. First and foremost would be a mostly healthy season in which there are no major injuries that neither sideline him for an extended stretch nor compromise his ramp-up for or general health heading into the postseason. LeBron has suffered key injuries in three of his five seasons as a Laker, so avoiding one of those would be the first priority and any best-case outcome is almost certainly contingent on it.

Second is a continued ability to produce as one of the best eight to 15 players in the NBA. Understand that even the least productive season of James’ career would equate to him being the best 21st-season player ever, so it feels almost pointless to use his longevity in the league as a way to prop up his production as meaning more than their actual impact on wins and losses.

No, LeBron will (and, honestly, should) be judged on his ability to continue to aid in his team racking up W’s and if this season is to go where everyone hopes it will, James will need to have to keep meeting that standard for his play and nothing lower.

To help facilitate this, there are some areas of his game that bear watching beyond his availability to play. First is his outside shooting. If Bron is going to be at his best and veer closer to the best version he can be for himself and the team, boosting last season’s 32.1% from three-point range back to the 36% mark from his previous two seasons would go a long way.

Second, if LeBron can continue to be a plus-defensive player — particularly within the team’s schemes by meeting his responsibilities in rotations and as a helper — it would similarly move the needle towards reaching that ultimate goal.

Whether any of this is fair to ask of a player who will turn 39 before the end of the calendar year and has played nearly 66 thousand combined regular season and playoff minutes is a totally reasonable question. And, if we’re being honest, it’s probably not. At all.

But such is the life of LeBron James. When you have made a career off defying what seems reasonably possible, that is exactly what becomes expected of you.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

What is his worst-case scenario?

Just as there is little gray area around what would be the best-case outcome for LeBron — good health, an uptick in shooting, continued positive defense, a Lakers title — the same is true for what the worst case looks like. And that’s basically the opposite of everything that appears above.

A season in which LeBron...

  • Misses an extended stretch of games or is not healthy enough to appropriately ramp up for or perform well in the playoffs.
  • Continues his downward trend as an outside shooter.
  • Gives into bad habits and/or offers generally low effort on defense due to mental or physical fatigue.
  • Declines just enough physically to no longer be able to be a consistent paint presence offensively off the dribble and/or out of the post.

And if those things happen, the Lakers winning a title would not just feel farfetched, it would be nearly impossible.

Now, I’m going to be 100% honest, even if this felt like a likely outcome — which I don’t particularly think it is; that’s just so much going wrong at the same time — I probably would not predict it.

You know why? Because LeBron has earned the benefit of the doubt. If I’m going to be wrong about LeBron it will be because I believed in him too long, not because I gave up on him too early.

What is his most likely role on the team?

Despite all the belief in LeBron, his ability to defy father time, and what he will be able to accomplish this upcoming season, it’s also disingenuous not to acknowledge the stage of his career he is in and the need to strike the appropriate balance between what he can do, what he should be asked to do, and what he tries to do on any given night.

As training camp opened, LeBron remarked that Anthony Davis is the face of the franchise now. Back in the spring, it was Draymond Green that remarked the off-ball version of LeBron his Warriors were facing in the second round was a totally different player than the one he faced in the Finals all those seasons.

LeBron, whether because of his own health, the strength of his teammates, or both, was showing a capacity to take on a different type of role all in the name of benefiting the team.

Of course, as the playoffs wore on, LeBron would again resume his higher usage tendencies, taking on more responsibility as an on-ball creator and possession controller in an effort to maximize his team’s chances.

Looking ahead to this season, what choices LeBron makes on a game-to-game — or even a possession-to-possession — basis will be one of the bigger questions that will be answered both in the regular season and the playoffs.

If I had to guess, I’d imagine LeBron finds a way to be incredibly productive while continuing to morph his game into being more of a “big” offensively. That means more post-ups, more screening both off and on the ball and more cutting into the gaps of and behind the defense as his very talented teammates occupy attention at the point of attack.

This doesn’t mean that Bron will suddenly abandon the on-ball work that has been a hallmark of his Hall of Fame career. The construction of this team and the skill set of the guards create an environment where he will get plenty of opportunities to flex his playmaking muscles.

But, I do believe what is most likely is for Lebron, as he has so often over the course of his career, to evolve and show other facets of his game in order to bring out the best in himself and his teammates. And while some might classify that as taking a step back, I prefer to think of it as a step to the side as his teammates — in particular, Anthony Davis — take a step forward into roles that they are capable of filling next to James.

Whether that gets the Lakers to their ultimate goal is anyone’s guess. Winning is hard — something that LeBron knows all too well. And because he does, I anticipate him doing everything he can to help his team do exactly that.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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