“I don’t play the game thinking about injuries,” James said Monday, ahead of L.A.’s regular-season opener against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. “And I also feel worse when I play low minutes.”
In what has become a near annual ritual for the 19-year veteran, James — already sixth on the all-time minutes played list — flatly rejected the notion that limiting his playing time can shield his body from potential harm.
The fact is that even though James logged a career-low 33.4 minutes per game last season, he still suffered a severe high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 26 games and derailed a potential MVP campaign.
While James played on the right ankle in all six games of the Lakers’ first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, he averaged just 23.3 points on 47.4% shooting, 8.0 assists and 7.2 rebounds, performing below his usual postseason standard.
James, who will turn 37 in December, said his injury dragged on well into the offseason.
“It took a while,” he said. “I didn’t do much basketball stuff for probably the first two months of the summer, which is very rare for me, because my ankle wasn’t responding how I would like it to respond.
“And the best thing about the summertime was I had time. I had time to just really get ready when my ankle was ready to go. I was always training, just wasn’t on the basketball court much. Always doing other stuff, training, pushing, seeing if I could do other stuff with my ankle, and until I got to a point where I didn’t feel any sharp pains anymore, and my flexibility was back to where it was before. That’s when I knew I could get back on the floor.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he plans to abide by a scripted rotation that would keep James on the court in the range of 34 to 36 minutes per game.
Vogel also explained what James meant about feeling better the more minutes he plays.
“Actually in some ways if he stays over there [on the bench] too long and he gets cold, it’s worse for him to get back in there [on the court],” Vogel said. “Especially since he’s been playing this type of rotation for so long.”
Beyond that, Vogel does not have a rigid plan to manage James’ workload as he embarks on what he hopes will be the 11th trip to the NBA Finals of his stellar career.
“Obviously, it’s probably don’t want to have him play 82 games,” Vogel said. “But we’re not going to pre-script X amount of nights off. We’re going to take it as it comes throughout the year.”
For James, coming off the only first-round exit of his career, there is no hangover from last season’s disappointing title defense.
“It’s definitely a completely clean slate,” he said. “And honestly, last year was such a fast-twitch season for us coming off the bubble. And injuries derailed anything that we wanted to do. So it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of just rinse our hands and have a clean slate, and get ready to start building.”
Building with a hope to secure his fifth ring — which would be the first for new Lakers Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and a record-setting 18th for the franchise, breaking a tie for most in league history with the rival Boston Celtics.
“Just motivated to have an opportunity to win a championship,” James said. “That’s why I play the game. It’s one of the greatest, shortest feelings that you have. You win a championship and everything that you put into that year, it just hits you all at once. And literally, a couple of hours later, it’s like, ‘It’s over.’
“And the whole time, you’re just trying to figure out how to get that moment again. Seriously. That’s part of motivation still, just always trying to get that feeling.”