April 17, 2024

After bouncing to seven different teams in his eight seasons in the NBA, Christian Wood was determined to make a strong first-day impression with his eighth.

With the Los Angeles Lakers gathering for a voluntary, player-run minicamp about a week before training camp, Wood reported to the court at San Diego State’s practice facility hours before the team was scheduled to meet.

“I tried to be one of the first ones in the gym,” Wood told ESPN. “I think it was about 7 a.m., 7:20.

“First person I see is LeBron James. Already in a full sweat.

“He already beat me to it.”

James, 38 years old and entering his 21st season with his third different franchise, has gotten here by beating obstacles big and small along the way. Beating the odds to rise out of his hard-scrabble Akron, Ohio, upbringing. Beating defenders off the dribble on foray after foray to the hoop. Beating playoff opponent after playoff opponent en route to four rings and 10 trips to the NBA Finals. And beating even the most bombastic projections of where his career would wind up after being feverishly hyped as a high school prospect in a way the sport had never seen.

Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown, who was 35 years old when he started coaching James with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005, marvels at the Lakers star’s longevity.

“Shoot, I got fired in Cleveland and I was like, ‘Man, I need to take a year off,'” Brown, now 53, said before Wednesday’s Kings-Lakers preseason game. “And then the second year came around and I said, ‘Man, this is OK.’ So I took a second year off.

“For him to go [21] straight years is ridiculous.”

Despite injuries taking their toll — James has missed 27, 26 and 27 games over the past three years, respectively — a glimpse back at last season shows how he flirted with glory once again.

He supplanted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points), a record that Abdul-Jabbar had held for James’ entire lifetime. And after dealing with a right foot injury in which James said he “pretty much tore the whole tendon,” he returned to push the Lakers to the Western Conference finals, extending his streak of appearing in 282 playoff games without sitting.

What’s next for Year 21? Here are five things to consider as James embarks on his quest for a fifth championship:

1. How will the Lakers manage James’ minutes?

Lakers coach Darvin Ham played James fewer minutes in 2022-23 than the previous season (35.5 per game compared to 37.2), but it was still the second-most playing time he’s logged since joining the Lakers in 2018.

L.A. has allowed James to ease into this training camp and the preseason, incorporating rest days as he ramps up for the real thing, starting Oct. 24 on the road against the defending champion Denver Nuggets.



LeBron hopes Lakers can pick up where they left off

LeBron James shares his optimism about the Lakers heading into the season.

“It’s easy with him navigating these so-called ‘challenges of the unknown’ because he takes such good care of himself and is constantly preparing himself,” Ham said before Wednesday’s game.

“Again, not to just be available but be available at the highest [level]. We’ll just take it day by day and see where it goes.”

L.A. has purposefully built its team with not just depth, but what it believes to be playmaking depth, so that even if James’ minutes aren’t cut significantly, more of his time spent on the court can be with players such as Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, Gabe Vincent and Wood, who can dictate the action, rather than defer to the veteran to expend the energy to constantly set the table.

2. What is James chasing in the record books?

James is 1,348 points away from becoming the first NBA player to amass 40,000 points in the regular season. But if you tally up all his scoring — including postseason points — there’s an international record he’s closing in on, too.

Oscar Schmidt, a Brazilian basketball player whose career in multiple leagues overseas spanned from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s, scored 49,737 career points through all of his recorded games — the most by any player, anywhere, in history. James enters the season at 48,080.

For the guy who came into the league saying his goal was to one day be known as a “global icon,” passing Schmidt would be a full-circle moment.

James can also move up to No. 1 in all-time NBA minutes played (regular season and playoffs) by logging 549 more to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

There are a few other major top-10 lists he can also climb:

  • With 56 games played, he’ll move from No. 9 to No. 6 on the career list, passing Kevin Willis, Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone.

  • James needs one triple-double to break a tie with Jason Kidd for No. 4 on that list.

  • With 30 regular-season wins, he’ll skirt by Malone and John Stockton for fourth place.

  • If he makes 292 more free throws, he’ll pass Kobe Bryant for No. 3 all time.

  • And 22 more steals will put him at No. 8, moving ahead of Clyde Drexler.

3. How does James compare to others who’ve played this long in the league?

When James takes the court against the Nuggets, he’ll become the sixth player in the league’s 77-year history to make it to his 21st season or beyond, joining Garnett, Willis, Vince Carter, Robert Parish and Dirk Nowitzki.

Those five players averaged a combined 29.0 points per game in their 21st seasons, led by Garnett’s 7.6. James is coming off a season in which he averaged 28.9.

He is set to obliterate the standards of production for a player at this stage of his career.

There has been a single instance of a player scoring 25 points or more in a game in his 21st season or beyond, let alone coming close to averaging that sum. Nowitzki dropped 30 points in his final home game against the Phoenix Suns in 2019.

“It’s all about my health,” James told ESPN when asked about continuing to extend his prime. “And my mindset, if I’m able to keep my mind fresh. However your mind is, everything else falls into place. So, keeping my mind fresh, keeping it in tune, keeping it intact for the marathon will allow my body to perform after that.”

4. What does James think of L.A.’s roster?

James refrained from commenting on the Lakers’ offseason moves until media day, other than sharing images on his Instagram stories of all the players L.A. signed.

When he finally spoke about the roster, he offered a ringing endorsement.

“I’m excited about us returning our core,” James said on media day, “and then bringing in a lot of very, very, very good players that can help us continue to roll.”

And remember how James blasted the team for its lack of “lasers” following the Lakers’ season-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors last October? Following the Lakers’ preseason win against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 9, when L.A. connected on 20 of its 55 attempts from 3, he credited that aspect of the team construction as well.

“We have better shooting this year,” James said after the win. “We have a lot of guys who shot the ball extremely well from the 3-point line last year.”

A consistent 3-point arsenal would be a welcome addition to L.A.’s offense. The Lakers opened up last season with the worst 3-point shooting performance in the history of the sport through the first four games and finished 25th in the league, shooting 34.6% from the outside. While the roster gained competent shooters after the trade deadline, L.A. only managed to connect on 33.5% of its 3s in the playoffs — with James hitting an anemic 26.4% on 6.6 attempts a game.

Adding Taurean Prince, who shot 38.1% from 3 for Minnesota; Wood, who shot 37.6% for Dallas; Vincent, who shot 37.8% in Miami’s postseason run to the Finals; and finding more opportunities for Russell, Hachimura and Reaves (coming off a summer when he shot 50% from deep at the FIBA World Cup) should improve that area.

5. What will be different for James in Year 21?

The Lakers opened media day with Davis — not James — as the first player to speak to reporters, allowing the veteran big man’s voice to set the tone.

It was a subtle shift from James offering the initial locution, customary for his teams in the past but not an insignificant change in the itinerary.

Not long after, James told ESPN that Davis was “the face” of the Lakers franchise, thrusting the torch in Davis’ hands whether he was ready to receive it or not.

Behind the scenes, James spent the summer training with Hachimura one-on-one, with the 25-year-old forward making several trips to meet James on the road and learn from a mentor ready to pass on more than two decades’ worth of knowledge.

James said the time he spent sidelined with a foot injury last season ended up getting him more excited about the game, adding that watching and analyzing his teammates let him become fans of their games.

He might not show any outward signs of slowing down, but there has been a conceptual shift for James.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said the team “partnered” with James to come up with a plan to “get him all the way to the end.” In other words, to put him in position to hit June with as much left in the tank as possible.

Long lauded for his unselfish approach when the ball is in his hands, James might find it OK to have the ball be in his teammates’ hands more and more and pick his spots to flash the skill that will land him in the Hall of Fame before long.

“He understands how much his teammates mean and how much they support him,” Ham told ESPN. “And he also understands how to allow them to support him. … Us putting together a well-balanced roster is going to help him excel that much more, hopefully in an efficient manner.”

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