EL SEGUNDO — There are plenty of Lakers fans who would just as soon see LeBron James, on the cusp of 38, resting on the bench during the team’s six preseason games, coated in bubble wrap out of extreme caution.
The future Hall of Famer, however, is not one of those people.
After Friday’s team practice, James declared his intention to play more games during this preseason than last year, when the Lakers were 0-6. James played in three exhibitions last season, though only for one half in one of the games.
“How many did I play last year?” James asked rhetorically, when asked about his preseason playing plan. “More than I played last year.”
The Lakers are poised to start the preseason Monday night at home against the Sacramento Kings, the beginning of a six-game slate that includes games against Phoenix, Golden State and Minnesota, with two each against the Kings and Timberwolves.
James is beginning his 20th NBA season and has struggled with injuries each of the last two seasons, playing just 101 of 154 possible regular season games. The preseason is always a bit of a balancing act, and even more so for new coach Darvin Ham trying to implement his style and system. Ham said the coaching staff has had “light discussions” about how many minutes they’ll give their stars, but it’s ongoing.
“We don’t want to go crazy,” he said. “But we also want to have it be enough where we can establish a rhythm – can be in game mode with a good rhythm going into the regular season.”
Even though James has struggled with injuries during his first four seasons as a Laker, he still hasn’t seen a notable decline when healthy: Last season he made the All-NBA third team, averaging 30.3 points, making a respectable run at the NBA’s scoring title.
The bigger question might be who is around him in the lineup to help, which is starting to get clearer. While Ham has been cagey at times about potential starters, he allowed Friday that his most-used group has been James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Damian Jones and Kendrick Nunn.
Of the group, Nunn might be the biggest breakthrough player after missing all of last season with a bone bruise in his knee. Austin Reaves praised his teammate, saying, “I don’t think he missed a shot all day.” Ham said Nunn’s ability to score at all three levels has given him a case to be a starting guard, but so has his defensive effort.
“He’s like a little waterbug defensively,” Ham said. “He can squeeze through pick-and-rolls, he can avoid screens, he can chase. He’s athletic so he can contest on shots. Damian is just a really young, athletic big. He runs like a deer. He can jump to the ceiling. Really defensive-minded. … So those attributes between those two guys have fit perfectly.”
Still, the Lakers have acknowledged plenty of fluidity among those starters. While Westbrook seems to be the favorite to start after Ham hedged in his commitment on media day, center and the other guard spot don’t appear to be locked down.
A grasp of Ham’s defense might be key to securing a role, which Reaves said has required some adjustment from what the Lakers ran last year under Frank Vogel.
“There’s not much switching with his game, you kind of guard your own going through pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, so it’s different but I mean there’s a lot of recipes to success,” he said. “With the group that we have, I feel like we’ve got a lot of length, we’ve got a lot of rim protection, so we can be aggressive on the perimeter, so I think that’ll help the most.”
Ham’s system on offense has a less regimented feel, which many players have called “positionless.” In that respect, James might have the least adjustment to make, having played both point guard and center in his Lakers tenure.
“If it calls for me having to handle the ball a little bit more, I can do that,” James said. “If it calls for me being a screen setter, I can do that. Pick-and-rolling. If it calls for me being on the wing, I can do that. So, I’m more of a positionless type of basketball player. So, if I’m on the floor I can make it happen.”
How much he’ll be on the court during preseason games, however, remains to be seen.