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Sturdy as ever, LeBron James has Lakers surging out of the gates

Despite the short offseason, the 4-time Kia MVP hasn't missed a beat -- or a game -- this season.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Despite a short offseason, LeBron James is averaging 31 minutes, 24.3 points, eight rebounds and 7.5 assists, without missing a game so far.

The most impressive number associated with the NBA here in the early season is 13, and there’s nothing unlucky about it at all.

If anything, there’s much good fortune associated with it, for the league itself and definitely for the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, because it relates to the game’s most precious commodity and driving force behind the Lakers’ bid to go back-to-back.

LeBron James is 13-for-13 … 13 games played, no games missed.

That might sound very so-so and no-big-deal, but then you’d be guilty of taking LeBron and what he’s doing — still — for granted, which is easy to do because he makes his job look so easy.

But of all the players who could be excused for having their minutes and games rationed, LeBron stands in front of the line. Remember, the Lakers (along with the Miami Heat) had the least amount of time off between the end last season, which lasted until Oct 11, and the start of this season on Dec. 22. LeBron also played at a level that was several ozone layers above anyone else in 2019-20, finishing second in the Kia MVP vote and then bulldozing through the postseason to win his fourth championship and another Finals MVP.

All that, at age 35.

Now here he is, a year older, but nothing has changed much. LeBron is LeBron. He’s sturdy, frisky, leading his team to the best record so far in the league, and currently holding pole position for the 2020-21 Kia MVP.  Yes, it’s early for that kind of talk … but never too premature to put LeBron and his astonishing endurance in the proper context.

Take a look at some of LeBron’s best long-distance dimes in L.A.

Sure, there are other developments currently capturing the imagination and attention of the NBA: The excitement LaMelo Ball is bringing to the Hornets; the James Harden trade and The Notorious Big Three that’s in place in Brooklyn; Stephen Curry back near the top of the scoring charts; Joel Embiid looking beastly in Philadelphia. All is well and good.

Then there’s LeBron and the continuation of greatness here in his 18th season, nothing new or unusual or trendy about that, of course.

It’s almost as if what we’re seeing is normal, and it’s everything but that. There are players who’ve had longer careers, and arguably one player who’s had a better career, but no player is putting those two together quite like LeBron. There are scant, if any, signs of decay in his game, or erosion of skills, or decline of strength and power, and no slippage in smarts.

There are entire teams that have missed more games this season than LeBron. And on that subject, it would be easy for the Lakers to pull the reigns, especially since the Lakers are off to a 10-3 start and could afford to sit him, and also because there are no ticket-buying fans who would be disappointed.

Instead, LeBron is averaging 31.9 minutes per game, burning calories and the man guarding him, averaging 24.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 7.5 apg — all without missing a beat or a game so far.

He explains by saying it’s “just me playing the game that I love to play.”

He’s also continuing to evolve, which is always for the better of his legacy and his team. Last season his goal was to become the game’s finest facilitator, and so he led the league in assists. That was important because besides Anthony Davis, the Lakers lacked players who could create their own shots.

This season, he’s placing a heavy emphasis on shooting. He’s attempting 6.4 3-pointers per game, the most on the Lakers. And although he did suffer a 1-for-11 stretch recently over two games, he’s connecting on a very respectable 38.6% — none bolder than his no-look shot from the deep corner in front of the Lakers’ bench Tuesday that went viral.

LeBron James turns to the Lakers bench even before his shot swishes through.

The outside shooting is by design. Instead of punishing his limbs by constantly getting points in the paint and absorbing contact here in his mid 30s, LeBron can preserve himself — and still have just as good, if not better, of an impact in games — by stretching the floor and shooting 3-pointers and making himself more unpredictable on offense.

“We’re encouraging him to beat defenses over the top,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “There’s multiple reasons for that: He’s probably the best shooter on our team, and they play him softly. They go under screens on him … In terms of the ‘four-point-range’ shots that he takes, he’s got a green light to take those because he makes them.”

Because of LeBron’s strong start, the Lakers are surging strong heading into their Friday game against the New Orleans Pelicans. They’ve lost once since the calendar flipped, although there’s a decent argument that they haven’t been challenged by the best. They’ve only played three teams currently with a winning record, and won’t be tested until later this month when the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics show up.

But if LeBron continues this pace, not only will the Lakers be well-positioned to cruise into the season’s break with the best record, LeBron will nearly cement his status as the game’s longevity king. Only a few players in history — Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mainly — have performed at a level considered at or near an All-NBA level this deep into their 30s.

LeBron James did it all in the Lakers’ last game, a win vs. OKC.

At the very least, LeBron’s string of All-NBA honors (16 times) and considerable MVP consideration (he’s won four) is all but assured. Then it becomes: How much longer can he sustain this pace?

His body has only betrayed him once, when a groin injury cut short his first season with the Lakers. Otherwise, LeBron appears as bullet-proof as ever.

The greatness and the consistency and the durability combine to keep him on the floor at the tip, and until that changes, the tendency to take him for granted will remain. But that doesn’t make it any less spectacular on most nights.

As Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said: “He’s one of the greatest to play this game, and the things that he does is always crazy to watch in real time.”

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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