“If I was back home, then I would be 35,” joked James, who referred to the three-hour time difference in Akron, Ohio. “I live in L.A. now. Don’t count me out just yet.”
It might be understandable that James viewed his 35th birthday with mixed feelings. He called his latest milestone “a blessing,” considering the difficulties inner-city kids in his hometown face that cut their lives short. Yet he also seemed aware of the potential challenges that await him as he turns another year older.
A week ago, James missed his first game of the season because of a thoracic muscle strain. Five days ago, James suffered a groin contusion in a game. Two days ago, James felt renewed soreness in his right elbow.
Those injuries have not defined his 17th NBA season, though. Instead, James’ narrative revolves around what he has done behind the scenes to push back Father Time a little bit more. The result? James has averaged 25.5 points on 49% shooting and a league-leading 10.8 assists. Although he had only 13 points on 3 of 10 shooting against Dallas, James logged 13 assists to become the ninth player in NBA history to reach 9,000.
“If we’re playing a lot of games, then I’m working on my mind,” James said. “Or if I’m feeling a little banged up, then I work on my body. If I feel like my game needs to be tuned up a little bit, then I work on the court and get my game involved, because everything is very important for me.”
That routine will continue to become very important now. All he had to do was look across at who was sitting courtside during Sunday’s game. Lakers luminary Kobe Bryant was already in the middle of recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon when he was 35. He then labored through a season-ending left knee injury in 2013-14 and a torn rotator cuff the next season.James, who ranks 12th in the NBA in all-time minutes played (47,319), trails Bryant (48,637).
In fairness to James, Bryant’s initial left Achilles injury happened after playing an average of 45.6 minutes per game for seven consecutive contests to ensure the Lakers made the playoffs. With the Lakers boasting the Western Conference’s best record at 26-7, James has averaged 35.0 minutes in what is his most conservative workload in the past four years.
James has not mirrored Kawhi Leonard’s load management program simply because he has not needed it after recovering from a left groin injury that sidelined him last season for 27 games last season. James has paid more attention to NFL quarterback Tom Brady, who is in the middle of his 19th season at 42 years old partly because of disciplined dieting and recovery.
“I definitely pay attention to what Brady does. How could you not?” James said. “One of the greatest football players ever to walk the face of the earth. He is counted out every year pretty much with people saying you can’t do this or do that. He just tries to continue to put his franchise and their franchise in a position to be successful.”
While James enjoys Taco Tuesday and wine in moderation, he also has been more attentive to cutting out sugar and ensuring he sleeps eight hours a day as he’s aged.
“He’s doing all the little things he needs to do to make sure he’s right,” Lakers forward Danny Green said. “It’s not just a couple hours before the game. He starts days before. Right after this game, he’s preparing for the next month. That’s why he’s been in this league at a high level.”
James, who is fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in points (33,347), needs to score only 297 more to surpass Bryant. James could win his fourth NBA championship this season and his first with the Lakers. He has embraced the hashtag, #WashedKing, in reference to perceived critics who say he no longer is one of the NBA’s best players.
Once the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him at No. 1 in 2003, James hoped he could play at least 10 years. He has exceeded those expectations by playing an additional seven years while winning three NBA titles out of a combined nine Finals appearances.
James said Sunday he’s “not a birthday wish guy.” So much so that when Anthony Davis jokingly asked James at his adjacent locker stall what he wants for his birthday, James jokingly replied, “for you to get the hell out of my face.”
James will still have a birthday party, though. “This one it’s going to be very mild,” James said. “40 will be gigantic.”
Before that happens, James plans to squeeze out a few more NBA seasons of elite play. His approach has worked so far.