LOS ANGELES — Amid a renaissance start to the season for both the Los Angeles Lakers as a successful franchise and LeBron James as a dominant player, James has no plans to miss games due to load management in anticipation of a postseason run.
“If I’m hurt, I don’t play. If not, I’m playing,” James told ESPN as he knocked on the wooden façade of his locker after the Lakers 95-80 win over the Miami Heat on Friday. “That’s what has always been my motto.”
James, six years Leonard’s senior and coming off the first major injury of his 17-year career last season when he suffered a torn groin, remains committed to suiting up whenever possible.
Both games that Leonard sat out were a part of a back-to-back, with Leonard playing the other leg.
James did not want to address how his plan differs from that of Leonard, whom the league determined had a legitimate reason to sit out as he continues to manage an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee.
“LeBron’s healthy, LeBron’ll play. That’s all I’ll talk about,” James said. “I don’t talk about nobody else but me.”
James had 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range, with six assists and four rebounds in Friday’s win.
The Lakers, off to a 7-1 start thanks in large part to James’ influence, face their first back-to-back next week.
“There’s a back-to-back Tuesday-Wednesday? Phoenix, [then] back home against Golden State? I’ll be ready to go,” James said. “What do you mean, ‘How am I going to handle it?'”
There has been internal discussion within the Lakers’ coaching and training staff about how to find time to rest James, sources told ESPN. But James, who turns 35 next month, is loath to accept it.
“Talk to my coaches,” James said. “You know how many times me and T-Lue (Tyronn Lue) got into it in Cleveland when he wanted to sit me and I wanted to play.
“I’m healthy, I play. I probably got a good 45 years to not play basketball.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel, who accepted the job after negotiations with Lue this summer broke down, said the team plans to protect James from overwork “every way we can.”
“Whether it’s off days in practice or minimize his minutes, minimize his load,” Vogel said after practice Thursday. “There’s some things built in scheme-wise that require him to do — to pass some guys off at certain times. Every way we can.”
James entered Friday’s game averaging 26.1 points, a league-best 11.1 assists and 8.3 rebounds. He had three-straight triple-doubles on the Lakers’ 3-0 road trip to tie the longest triple-double streak of his career.
Moreover, his defensive effort has helped the Lakers leap to the top of the league in defensive efficiency in the early going.
“The guy is incredible,” Vogel said Friday after James and the Lakers held the Heat to just 34 points in the second half. “He’s giving it all to this team and really impacting both ends of the floor. The biggest impact probably is how he is setting a tone. He’s setting a tone for our group with how hard he is playing on defense, how willing he is to pass the basketball offensively and obviously he’s got the ability to make big shots in the clutch. So, the guy is just incredible.”
Friday’s win earned James and the rest of his team off from Saturday’s scheduled practice — that’s one way to build in time off his feet.
And the win provided a platform to explain the “washed king” hashtag James has been embracing on social media, as he has leaned into those who doubted his place in the game heading into this season.
“It’s just my personal motivation,” James said. “I’m extra motivated to put myself into the position where I know I belong.
“So, it’s my personal motivation every single night I step on the floor to be great. I know the the summer that I had. I know the rehab that I had with my groin.”
James pointed to his experience shooting “Space Jam 2” this summer to explain his commitment to the Lakers.
“I shot ‘Space Jam’ for three months all summer. My call time every morning was at 6:30 in the morning and I was in the gym at like 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning before shooting for 12, 13, 14 hours,” James said. “So, I just know how much I put into my craft, I know what the main thing is. Even when I was shooting the movie I know what was most important. And that’s me getting ready for the fall, and I always had that in the front of my mind. So it’s just my personal pressure that I’m putting on myself. Which is, I don’t really believe in pressure much, but I believe in myself and I know what I’m capable of.”
James was then asked how much of his motivation was drawn directly from others using the actual term “washed” to describe him in his mid-30s.
“Well, I don’t know, man,” James said. “Meet me at the cleaners.”