If there were ever a time when you’d expect LeBron James to slow down, it would be this year. Not because of eroding skills or because of sapped athleticism, but because conventional wisdom said there was no better time for him to choose to.
The challenge of last season cannot be overstated for LeBron. From the Darryl Morey tweet that sparked controversy in China right as the Lakers flew there for preseason games to Kobe’s devastating and untimely death in a January helicopter crash and the subsequent grieving to COVID-19 shutting down the season in March to the Orlando Bubble restart and the resulting isolation from July through October, the mental burden James carried as a leader of the franchise and face of the league was all too real.
Over the course of the 2019-20 season, no player was asked to do more than James. And, by the close of the campaign, no player actually did more than him. The #washedking #revengetour culminated with him on the top of the league once more.
Then, only 10 weeks after his team won the championship (where he collected another Finals MVP) the new NBA season began with him and his remade roster positioned by pundits to repeat. Considering the short turnaround and all that he’d just done to get his team to the perch they were elevated on, LeBron, embarking on his 18th season and at 36 years old, was supposed to take it easy.
Maybe he’d “load manage” more and take nights off. Maybe he’d show less effort on the defensive end and turn to his younger teammates — in particular Anthony Davis — to carry the load during the regular season. Before the season started James even joked that would be the case in a great interview he and Maverick Carter did with former President Barack Obama.
LeBron, though, didn’t turn those jokes into reality. Through the season’s first 16 games, the Lakers have the league’s best record and he is the one setting the tone night to night; he is the one leading the team forward in their quest for a repeat title.
Sure, he’s had some uninspiring nights — the MLK Day loss to the Warriors stands out as the chief example. But in Thursday’s win over the Bucks, it was Bron who carried the Lakers home. Burying dagger 3’s and dunking home the victory over the reigning MVP’s eastern conference powerhouse. LeBron James is here, showing through his play, that he’s not going to take any steps back just yet. Conventional wisdom be damned.
I could rattle off a bunch of stats here, but there’s little point in that. His scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers are right in line with his career averages. He’s again part of some of the league’s best performing lineups, finding instant chemistry with Marc Gasol — another 36 year old basketball savant — to form the NBA’s best performing duo in terms of net rating when they share the floor.1For teammates that have shared the floor for at least 150 minutes. His shooting accuracy from beyond the arc is unprecendented for him considering the volume he’s taking.
His impact on winning remains among the league’s highest and after his performance in Milwaukee the whispers are getting louder about him being near the top of the league in MVP discussions.
Again, it really wasn’t supposed to be this way. With Davis’ playoff ascension and the additions of Schröder (in particular) and Harrell, James was supposed to ease back some. His scoring and playmaking responsibilities were supposed to go down. His activity level on and general commitment to defense was supposed to fall way back from where it was last season. He was going to coast through the regular season and ramp up for the playoffs in order to best position himself for that 5th championship he’s chasing.
But none of it has really happened that way. Sure, the new additions have helped him pace himself more. And the nature of how he’s scoring and the level to which he’s the focal point within and initiator of offense has been more subdued. But, scour Basketball Reference and there he is: team leader per game in points and assists while being 2nd in rebounding.
It’s his 18th season. He’s 36 years old.
But, he’s just still so good. And while that was assumed, I did not expect LeBron James to be showing it in this way at this early stage of the season. Conventional wisdom was that it was going to go different. But he continues to defy it and watching him do it each night should serve as a reminder to appreciate him while we can.