LOS ANGELES — Now in his 17th season, LeBron James has adopted the moniker of the "Washed King," mocking those who doubted him after he and the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs last season.
But James is anything but washed up, and many have pointed out that few if any serious national analysts called him washed up. He is averaging 26.1 points, 11.1 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game. If anything, he's better than he was a year ago, and the Lakers have won six straight since their opening-night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
So who is James trying to convince? The only person he really needs to convince is Anthony Davis, who can become a free agent this offseason. It's a question Davis will have to consider to maximize the prime of his career.
"How long the Lakers will be able to invest 35 percent of the cap [each] into [Anthony] Davis and LeBron is a good question," one Western Conference executive wondered.
Per NBA.com, James has a defensive rating of 96.4 points per 100 possessions, which balances quite well for the Lakers given his 111.3 offensive rating. Last year, he finished with a 107.6 defensive rating and a 109.6 offensive rating.
"He's playing defense—and at a high level," the executive said. "We haven't seen him play on that side of the ball with this level of intensity for several years. I wonder how long he'll be able to keep it up?"
Over the first seven games last year, James averaged more points (27.6) and rebounds (9.1) than he has in 2019-20, but his assists were lower (8.3). More importantly, last year's squad went 2-5.
What's been the difference?
"He's working really hard. I couldn't be more impressed with his commitment on that end and his intent to set a tone with our group," coach Frank Vogel said after practice Thursday.
The Lakers can't let James burn out, given how much responsibility he's shouldering. Pretty soon, we may see "load management" and "LeBron" in headlines.
"Every way we can, whether it's off days in practice or minimize his minutes, minimize his load," Vogel said. "There are some things built in scheme-wise that require him to pass some guys off at a certain time [defensively]."
Is that a veiled hint at load management? To be determined—the team has yet to play on back-to-back nights. That first test may come next week when the Lakers visit the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday before hosting the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.
If the Lakers continue to play defense at their current level and start to convert open looks, James' load management may be in the fourth quarters of blowouts. For what it's worth, he took pride in reaching 82 games for the only time of his career during the 2017-18 season.
James will turn 35 in late December and is currently in year 17. Lakers fans will recall Kobe Bryant suffered the Achilles tear that functionally ended his career in year 17. Bryant pushed through another 107 games over his last three seasons but was never the same.
"At some point, as we saw with Kobe, James will start to wind down physically," the executive continued. "We don't know when that will be, but it doesn't look like it's this year."
James and Bryant are quite different. They're two of the best to ever play the game, but there's no way to know when James' clock will run out.
However, James looks anything but washed. AD should be pleased—for now.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus