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LeBron prepping for 21st season ‘like a rookie’

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers‘ plan to help LeBron James extend his unprecedented prime into the 21st season of an illustrious career involves adding talent around him, not so much cutting his minutes.

“Bron, he does a great job taking care of himself,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said Thursday at a news conference ahead of the start of L.A.’s training camp next week. “The team that’s around him now, the pieces that we have in place, those guys are going to step up and do a lot of heavy lifting early.”

James, who will turn 39 in December, averaged 35.5 minutes per game last season, which was a tick down from the 37.2 minutes per game he logged in 2021-22 but was still more than he played in any of his first three seasons with the Lakers. Statistically, James was still impactful — averaging 28.9 points on 50% shooting with 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists — but a torn tendon in his right foot caused him to miss 27 games.

While there’s been little noticeable drop off in James’ overall game since he signed with the Lakers, his body has betrayed him at times. He’s missed 111 games because of injury in the last five seasons after only missing 71 games in his first 15 years in the league.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka praised James’ offseason work ethic and mental approach following the Lakers’ disappointing end to the postseason when they were swept out of the Western Conference finals by the Denver Nuggets.

“It’s staggering for a player who has 20 years under the hood already and is preparing for 21 like he’s a rookie,” Pelinka said. “He’s been doing 6 a.m. workouts. Probably been in our building as much as any player this offseason. Been in the weight room as much as any player. Any team LeBron’s played for, it’s been pretty uniform that his work sets the tone.

“There has been nothing but an increase in seeing that here. To me, it’s let’s be about it, let’s not talk about it. He’s definitely been about it this offseason.”

Pelinka kept last season’s core together for the most part, securing contract extensions with Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt. L.A. rounded out the rest of its roster with youth, athleticism and shooting ability, signing 27-year-old guard Gabe Vincent, 29-year-old forward Taurean Prince, 28-year-old big man Christian Wood, 23-year-old center Jaxson Hayes and 24-year-old swingman Cam Reddish.

The Lakers also signed two rookies, 20-year-old Jalen Hood-Schifino out of Indiana and 21-year-old Maxwell Lewis out of Pepperdine.

“We have to partner with [James] to help him get all the way to the end [of the season healthy], because that’s his goal,” Pelinka said. “And so I think adding the depth we have, the versatility, the shooting, all those things are going to help us manage that.”

Ham joked that the NBA’s new resting policy — cracking down on healthy players missing games to get a night off — should not apply to James based on his experience.

“He was grandfathered in by the rest rules,” Ham said.

The second-year Lakers coach added that he will look long range at the team’s 82-game schedule to find opportunities for James to lighten his load.

“Big picture, month-to-month, different sections in the calendar,” Ham said.

Both Ham and Pelinka supported the new rest policy, however the Lakers executive offered what he feels like would be a better solution.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about, [with] our competition committee, is [if] can we eliminate back-to-back [games],” Pelinka said. “That’s something that we would support. Can we eliminate them completely?”

The Lakers have 15 sets of back-to-back games this season, up from the 12 they played last year.

While James, Davis and Reaves are obvious starters coming off last season’s success, Ham announced Thursday that Russell will return as the team’s primary ball handler, after being benched in the Denver series.

“He’s our starting point guard,” Ham said. “I’m going to encourage him to be assertive. He’s a highly intelligent basketball player who’s coming back with a chip on his shoulder. He chose us, we believe in him and he’s one of those guys who has a ton of pride and passion about not only his individual performance, but those of his teammates as well.

“He’s another one who’s going to have an outstanding season.”

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