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Rejuvenated LeBron, Lakers eye return to NBA summit

By Rob Woolard, AFP Published Oct 18, 2021 10:38 am

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers launch their bid to return to the summit of the NBA on Tuesday, Oct. 19, with a new roster and a rejuvenated mindset after a badly needed first full off-season in two years.  

A year ago, James had only just finished leading the Lakers to their 16th NBA championship with a 4-2 series victory over the Miami Heat after a grueling season upended by the pandemic. 

The purple and gold confetti that greeted that victory had barely been swept up, however, before James and his teammates were hauling their weary bodies into another season just 72 days later. 

While the NBA has rejected suggestions that injuries had spiked as a result of the compressed off-season, what is not in dispute is that injuries affected the Lakers last term more than others. 

After a strong start to the season, the Lakers were derailed after both James and Anthony Davis suffered long-term injuries, with the team eventually bowing out in the opening round of the post-season. 

In this file photo taken on May 25, 2021, Los Angeles Lakers' US player LeBron James stands during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at the Phoenix Suns Arena, in Phoenix, Arizona. For the Lakers of LeBron James and the armada of veterans that now surround him, winning an 18th NBA title after last season's failure cannot wait. AFP

Davis played only 36 of 72 games in 2020-2021, while James made only 45 appearances due to injury -- the first time the 36-year-old has missed so many games in a single season. 

James, however, is confident that the extra rest since last season will benefit the Lakers more than most. 

"Last year after coming off the bubble it literally took everything away from you," James said during the Lakers' recent pre-season training camp. 

"Any little bit of energy that you had, it was completely gone when we left there. To come back into the season with the quick start that we had, kind of the life of the party was just kind of stale. You know, rightfully so. 

"Guys just didn't have an opportunity to get a mental break." 

Oldest roster
James says he has noticed a marked transformation in energy levels during the Lakers' preparations for this season. 

 "You could definitely feel the energy shift a lot more in this season the first two practices compared to last," James said as training camp got underway. 

The extra rest may prove decisive for a Lakers roster which has the oldest average age of any team in the NBA, coming in at around 30.9 years per player. 

That's due to a summer rebuilding process which has seen the Lakers bring in a raft of seasoned professionals headed by 32-year-old Russell Westbrook, who joined the team in a blockbuster trade with the Washington Wizards in August that sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Kyle Kuzma in the opposite direction. 

Other new signings include Rajon Rondo (35), DeAndre Jordan (33), Kent Bazemore (32), Carmelo Anthony (37) and Trevor Ariza (36). 

While some have wondered whether the relatively advanced years of the Lakers roster might be the team's undoing, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel prefers instead to emphasise the squad's basketball IQ. 

"Age does equal experience," Vogel said. "IQ and intelligence help you win, and in terms of motivation, the motivation for us is that trophy, not what people are saying. 

"This group is highly driven to get back on top and I don't really think about anything about what anybody's saying about our age. But I do agree that the experience will be necessary and help us win." 

James also brushes off the viral jokes that have been made about the Lakers' merry band of thirtysomethings. 

"The narrative about our age," James said. "I kind of laugh at it. I actually do really laugh. I'm not just saying that." 

Anthony, meanwhile, a close friend of James' since the duo played on opposing teams in high school, is now two decades later a teammate and confident that the accumulated mileage and knowhow of the Lakers' roster could return the team to the pinnacle of the NBA. 

"A lot of times when you put a group of players together, a group of talent like we have, it doesn't work out," Anthony said. 

"But I think where we're at in our careers and understanding what we have to do, understanding the sacrifices that we all have to make in order for us to work, that's the beauty of the actual journey that we're about to go on."