2021-22 Kia Season Preview

'Opportunity' for another title driving LeBron James in season No. 19

Entering his 19th season with a 'completely clean slate' after healing from injury, LeBron James has his sights set on winning a championship in 2021-22.

LeBron James is eager to collect his fifth NBA title as he enters his 19th season in 2021-22.

LOS ANGELES — Well before he won four NBA championships, set various league milestones and presumably landed on the NBA’s list of 75 greatest players in league history, LeBron James felt like “The King” of the world in another way.

James often attended Cedar Point outside of his hometown of Akron, Ohio, which he considered “the greatest amusement park in the world.” The reason? The roller coasters featured steep drops that made the short-lived adrenaline rush so intense. So much that James willingly chased that feeling despite the long waits in line.

“That ride is taking its damn well time to get to the top. You’re there in total excitement. And then you finally go down that hill. You’re like, ‘I want to ride it again,'” James recalled feeling. “But it gets you three hours to get on that ride.”

Over two to three decades later, James has pursued a different kind of adrenaline rush that involves plenty of patience as well. At 36, James enters his 19th NBA season eager to collect another ring, just as he has done four other times in his career.

“Just motivated enough to have the opportunity to win a championship. That’s why I play the game,” James said following the Lakers practice on Monday. “It’s one of the greatest, but shortest feelings that you have. You win a championship, and everything you put into that year just hits you all at once. Literally a couple of hours later, it’s over. That whole time you figure out, ‘How can I get that moment again?’ Seriously. That’s a part of my motivation – always trying to get that feeling.”

James will experience some of that feeling when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday at Staples Center (10 ET, TNT), which represents one of two marquee games the NBA will showcase on opening night. 

Then, James will play before a presumed sell-out crowd, a stark contrast to the last two seasons when he played without any fans in attendance during the NBA’s bubble restart in 2020 and for the majority of a compressed 72-game season in 2020-21. James only played in front of a nearly sell-out crowd last season in limited games, including a Play-In Tournament game against the Warriors and the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.

“It was a sampling platter,” James said. “It made me cherish the moments that I had previously with fans in the building. It also made me look forward to what was going to happen in the future beginning [Tuesday] night. Being a Laker is one special thing. It makes it even more special when you get out there on the floor, and you’re with the Laker faithful.”

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Still, James will spend the 2021-22 season pursuing a different kind of adrenaline than just playing in front of fans. He wants to collect his fifth NBA championship, which would tie the ring count that Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have. James would then also becomes one trophy shy of tying Michael Jordan’s collection.

And unlike when he waited three hours to enjoy his favorite rollercoasters at Cedar Point, James will navigate a different kind of rollercoaster that might feel just as turbulent with a longer wait time. From October through possibly next June, James will aim to prove a few things.

First, James sounded optimistic he can delay Father Time after missing a combined 27 games last season because of a high right ankle sprain that he admitted did not fully heal during the Lakers’ first-round loss to the Suns.

“It took a while. I didn’t do much basketball stuff probably from the first two months of the summer, which is very rare for me,” James said. “My ankle wasn’t responding to how I would like for it to respond. The best thing about the summer time is I had time. I had time really to give it an opportunity to get ready. My ankle was ready to go. I was always training. I wasn’t always on the basketball court. But I was doing other stuff training, pushing and seeing the things I could do with my ankle where I got to the point where I didn’t feel any sharp pains anymore. My flexibility was back to where it was before.”

Second, James will try to navigate what could become a push-pull exercise on how he, Lakers coach Frank Vogel and the team’s medical staff manage his workload. Both Vogel and James have touted the importance of having film sessions replacing some practices with hopes to preserve energy. Vogel also projected James will play in the mid-30-minute range, which is something that has mirrored his playing time during his past seven seasons.

As for the other details, however, Vogel considered the process “day-to-day.” He added, “you probably don’t want to have him play 82 games. But we’re not going to pre-script ‘X’ amount of nights off.”

If James has his way, though, he hopes to play without having any nights off.

“I don’t play the game thinking about injuries,” James said. “I also feel worse when I play lower minutes.”

Third, James will try to excel on the fly with a new roster that includes the NBA’s leader in triple doubles (Russell Westbrook), one of the league’s top scorers that will play a relatively reduced role (Carmelo Anthony) and a handful of established veteran role players (Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Rajon Rondo).

Unlike last season, both James and Anthony Davis report feeling fully healthy. But the Lakers enter Tuesday’s game against Golden State without Ariza, Ellington and Talen Horton-Tucker because of various injuries.

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Still, James has already become used to learning how to win on newly assembled super teams. A season after teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat, James won consecutive NBA titles in 2012 and ’13. Then, a season after reuniting with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland, James helped the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 Finals series deficit to Golden State in 2016.

“I was still figuring out who I was as a person. I was figuring out what I wanted in life,” James said of his time in Miami and Cleveland. “My life is pretty much set where I know who I am, and I know what to bring to the table. I know how to put myself and put guys around me in a position to be successful.”

“I never get too high or get too low. I stay even keel. So I didn’t even drink wine with D-Wade or Kyrie, or tequila. So, that lets you know right then and there that I’m a totally different person.”

James also has become a totally different person for reasons beyond his drinking preferences. He consumes those beverages to relax with friends, but not to cope with a challenging season. That is because he has become disciplined with his dietary and training routine in recent years.

After missing a combined 27 games with a left groin injury during his first Lakers season in 2017-18, James spent the first summer without a playoff appearance in 13 years healing his body and mind. The next season, James helped the Lakers win their first NBA title in 10 years and collected his fourth Finals MVP while playing on the NBA’s bubble campus in Orlando. Last season, the Lakers fell to Phoenix in the first round partly because they started the campaign just 71 days after winning that 2020 title, and partly because Hawks guard Solomon Hill accidentally dove into James during a regular-season game in late March.

Since then, James said he has a “completely clean slate”  with healing both from his injury and from his frustrations with the early playoff exit.

“He comes in with renewed energy,” Vogel said of James. “I’m pretty excited for him to get out there. Obviously, you expect him to play at a super high level. And I know he’s very motivated to play with this year’s group and this year’s team.”

But even if he does not have to deal with any current injury concerns, a bubble season restart or a compressed season, James still anticipates some turbulence ahead.

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The Lakers foreshadowed some of those issues during their 0-6 pre-season while fitting in Westbrook and dealing with injuries to some of their role players.  

“I don’t want to say easy because nothing about this game is easy,” James said. “There’s going to be ups and downs, and there’s going to be challenging moments. Some adversity hits. Hopefully you have way more ups than downs. Obviously, that’s always the goal. But for me, I just try to prepare my mind and my body and keep myself as fresh mentally more than anything. I know the body will take its toll. That’s going to happen. That’s what the season is all about. The survival of the fittest is what it’s all about. So, it’s about keeping my mind as fresh as possible.”

That way, James will know how to handle the rollercoaster ride during another NBA season. Just like he experienced at Cedar Point, James appears optimistic he will hop on a ride that will yield an exciting finish. Just like those times at the amusement park, James will consider the journey well worth the wait. 

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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