“When it comes to IQ and being cerebral on the floor, we don’t need to say anything to each other,” James said. “[Rondo] threw it up there, and I used my abilities at 34 — almost 35 — to go get it.”
That unusual mid-sentence clarification, delivered with a sly smile, was at once self-deprecating and self-promoting. Indeed, James, who turns 35 on Dec. 30, has spent much of the first 20 games of this season refuting the notion that he is slowing down, while also reminding observers that his quality of play is unprecedented this late in his career.
James has pointed out that he has logged more career minutes than the NBA’s oldest active player, 42-year-old Vince Carter. He has compared himself to fine wine and regularly called himself the “Washed King” — a mocking retort to social media critics who had suggested that he looked past his prime during a season-opening loss to Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers or after an injury marred his 2018-19 campaign. Any remaining doubters, James said after the Lakers improved to 7-1 in mid-November, were welcome to “meet [him] at the cleaners.”
Despite the defiant quips, James’s age hangs over the Lakers’ every move. His narrowing title window was a major factor in the organization’s decision to go all-in with the Anthony Davis trade. It’s why they pursued Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard this summer. It surely influenced the decision to move on from former coach Luke Walton after his first season with James resulted in a lottery trip.
The blockbuster trade, the roster overhaul and the coaching change have all helped the Lakers get off to an impressive 17-3 start and claim the top spot in the Western Conference standings. Yet it is James, the major holdover from last season and the oldest player on the roster, who remains the most important puzzle piece. The Lakers have done everything to maximize his ability to claim his fourth title in 2020, and he has responded with exceptional effort and MVP-caliber play, averaging 25.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 10.9 assists through the first 20 games. Remarkably, his 27.6 player efficiency rating is the highest for a player his age in NBA history.
“LeBron James is doing what he does on offense, and that deflates the other team,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “They’re all figuring out how to stop him, and they’re not focused on executing offensively. His offense punches them, knocks them down, and it strengthens our defense.”
For James, “doing what he does” continues to mean dominating and orchestrating like few NBA superstars, past or present. He has established an instant rapport with Davis, setting him up for countless lobs and deferring when the 26-year-old forward is in a groove. He has captained the league’s seventh-best offense, involving the Lakers’ many new shooters and counseling Kentavious Caldwell-Pope through slumps. He has guided Los Angeles to an 8-1 record in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. And he has led the league in assists, something he has never previously accomplished during his 17-year career.
The most noticeable difference this season, though, might be his recommitment on the defensive end. Without a star sidekick in 2018-19, James conserved energy on defense and often seemed irritated by the mistakes of his younger supporting cast. This year, a rival scout said, James is doing more dirty work and displaying better focus early in the season than at any point since his Miami tenure, which ended in 2014. Davis’s arrival has helped boost the Lakers from 15th in defensive efficiency last year to third this year, and it seems to have inspired James to get back in transition and make the extra rotation with greater regularity.
“We know how great A.D. is defensively,” James said. “He’s right there right now as probably the defensive player of the year, if you look at the numbers and what we’ve been able to do.”
The Lakers’ 17-3 record through 20 games tied the second-best start in franchise history and matched the best start of James’s career. The question now is whether they can maintain that torrid pace. Los Angeles has played one of the league’s 10 easiest schedules to date, but a nightmarish December slate opens with eight of the first nine games on the road. Between now and the new year, the Lakers will play 10 games against teams that are currently in the playoff picture, including contenders such as the Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets.
“In November, we had a great month, but that’s behind us,” Vogel said. “We’re 0-0 now. That month was filled with teams with sub-.500 records, and next month is not. Every night is going to be a little more difficult.”
As they proceed through the upcoming gantlet, the Lakers will need to watch James for signs of fatigue and, yes, possible age-related decline. So far, James is shooting 69 percent on shots in the basket area — a sizable drop from last season and his worst mark since 2005-06, when he was 21. He is also averaging a career-low 5.7 free throws, which has prompted numerous complaints to officials in recent games. His toughest moments, unsurprisingly, have come in the Lakers’ losses; he was outlasted by Leonard, swarmed by the Toronto Raptors’ length and outdueled by Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic.
Those nitpicks aren’t cause for real concern, especially when compared to the trade rumors and front office dysfunction that swallowed the Lakers last year. This season’s only real drama came when James was criticized by numerous politicians in October for expressing his frustration with a tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey that prompted a standoff between the NBA and the Chinese government.
Since then, James has largely avoided controversy, preferring to use his postgame news conferences to hype up Davis and to detail his offseason grind. On more than one occasion, James has explained that he regularly worked out at 3:30 a.m. to accommodate his “Space Jam 2” filming schedule, which began with a 6:30 a.m. call time and lasted up to 14 hours per day.
As with his quips about his advancing age, James’s devotion to the game remains a point of pride and a matter of identity.
“I know how much I put into my craft,” he said. “I was born to have workload. It is who I am, both on and off the floor.”