As the NBA sped through an abbreviated offseason toward a new season just 10 weeks removed from the conclusion of its predecessor, many observers expected the league’s signature star to take a slow and steady approach to the tip-off of the 2020-21 campaign. This wasn’t just idle chitchat from the cheap seats, either: Danny Green, LeBron James’s teammate on last season’s Lakers, told Logan Murdock and Raja Bell on The Ringer NBA Show in October that he expected the 2020 Finals MVP to essentially take the first month of the season off.
You could understand the argument. Barely two and a half months passed between the night LeBron hung a 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist triple-double to clinch his fourth NBA championship and the night he began pursuit of a fifth, against the rival L.A. Clippers. That marquee matchup marked the opening of James’s 18th season, with more than 59,000 regular- and postseason minutes on his odometer—more than any player in league history but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. It also came eight days before his 36th birthday—a point past which very few players ever have continued to produce like stars.
Yes, everyone who thought they saw signs of LeBron slowing down has been wrong so far (cough, cough). But during preseason, the man himself seemed to hint that he’d be on board for tapping the brakes a bit during the truncated regular-season slate: “I’ve always listened to my coaches. We had the same thing last year. We’re going to be as smart as we can be making sure that my body [is healthy] and making sure that I’m ready to go. Obviously every game matters, but we’re competing for something that’s high.”
If ever there was a scenario in which it seemed reasonable to expect LeBron to rediscover his belief in load management, this—a 72-game season starting 72 days after he ended the last one—was it. Right?
Maybe we should’ve focused less on the “We’re going to be as smart as we can be” part, and more on the “We had the same thing last year” part. Through seven games, all of which he has played (including a back-to-back), James leads the 5-2 Lakers in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and steals. He’s averaging two fewer minutes per game, but his per-minute and per-possession production are right in line with last season.
The assists are down from last season’s league-leading mark (10.2 per game to 7.4), but so are the turnovers, and LeBron’s grabbing a career-high share of available defensive rebounds. As of Monday, only Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic had scored or assisted on more total points this season, despite James playing just 32.1 minutes per game, which would be the fewest of his career. He’s averaging 23.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game on .566 true shooting—numbers only six other players ever have matched. Fun fact: None of them were older than 30. Not bad for a dude who’s now closer to 40 … although he doesn’t exactly look it.
While LeBron’s usage rate remains in line with where it’s been for most of the past decade, and where it was during the first season of his partnership with Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ offseason additions have lightened his workload. He’s averaging about 13 fewer total touches and seven fewer frontcourt touches per game than last season, ceding some of his ballhandling duties, playmaking responsibilities, and half-court scoring burden to new arrivals Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell. His time of possession is down by about a minute and a half per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats—its lowest level since 2015-16, when he shared the court and the ball with an ascendant Kyrie Irving. The second-unit reinforcements have also reduced L.A.’s dependence on James somewhat in the early going; the Lakers have outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him off the court, according to Cleaning the Glass, after being outscored by 1.6 points per 100 with him on the pine last season.
Davis might be Frank Vogel’s nuclear deterrent; Schröder and Harrell might be the pick-and-roll balloon inflating the Lakers’ margin of error; Gasol might be the connective tissue keeping ball and man moving on both ends of the floor. But LeBron remains L.A.’s bellwether: No Laker boasts a higher plus-minus. The club has outscored the opposition by 15.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with James on the court and, in keeping with a trend that held for much of last season, the team has fared demonstrably better in the minutes that James plays without Davis (plus-7.2 points-per-100) than when AD plays without LeBron (minus-14 points-per-100).
And when the Lakers look listless, as they did at times during Sunday’s meeting with the Grizzlies, it’s still James who takes over, scoring or assisting on 18 fourth-quarter points to restore order against reeling Memphis and push his team across the finish line:
“He sets a tone for this Laker organization, this team. That’s the standard,” new Laker Wesley Matthews told reporters after the win. “When the best player is setting and exceeding that standard, I mean, obviously everybody else comes along.”
And maybe that—the importance of setting that standard, even at a time when nobody would fault you for taking it easy—is why a season that seemed poised for a cruise-control start will instead see LeBron push hard enough that the Lakers can cruise.
“I love it,” Vogel told reporters. “We’ll manage his minutes and all that stuff in a responsible way, but when he’s out on the floor, that’s who he is.”
Which is to say: the best player in the world, still, and maybe a better bet to snag that fifth MVP trophy than we might’ve thought before the start of the season. Because LeBron James, it seems, doesn’t take it easy. He just makes it look that way.