Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Lakers’ LeBron James facing age questions amid slow start to season

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James seems well-prepared for cracks about his age. For a while now, he’s poked the most fun at himself.

In 2019, James manifested his own hashtag, “#WashedKing,” meant to represent doubters after a disappointing first season in L.A., riding it all the way to his fourth career title. This offseason, James leaned into it even harder, with an entire advertising campaign structured around his one-on-one with Father Time (a gray-bearded Jason Momoa).

“I mean it’s motivation for myself to continue to play at a high level, no matter the mileage or the years or whatever the case may be since I’ve been out on the floor,” James said Wednesday morning. “I like to try to push the limit.”

Now, with James’ 38th birthday looming, others are getting in on the jokes – though perhaps with not so much playful intent.

James has started out shooting cold: Entering Wednesday night’s game against the Clippers, he was shooting his lowest field goal percentage (44.7%) since his rookie season, and just 21% from deep. He had a stretch of 16 straight missed 3-pointers lasting nearly a week, helping lower his scoring average (24.3 ppg) just a season removed from very nearly earning the league’s scoring title.

While he’s dealt with a left foot injury that caused him to sit out Monday’s game at Utah, James acknowledged at Wednesday’s shootaround that he must show improvement.

“I know I’ve put in more than enough work in every aspect of the game on the floor, so definitely I do not like ever shooting under 50% or better from the field,” he said. “I’ve always prided myself on being efficient from the field, so just gotta be better, especially from the perimeter as well.”

Perhaps in a sign that he’s pushing himself in that direction, James hit his first six shots against the Clippers on Wednesday night.

The efficiency aspect could help James close on one of the game’s most important records: He’s nearly within 1,000 points of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s regular season scoring mark (37,281), a mark he can reasonably reach in February or March at his current pace.

Clippers coach Ty Lue – who coached James in Cleveland – said he hoped that the record-breaking game would happen when the Lakers are in L.A. so he can attend. But speaking about his former players’ slow start, Lue waxed philosophical about how the Lakers’ losing record might weigh on James.

“He wants to win, and so when you’re a competitor it’s hard,” Lue said. “You take it home like I do. Every loss we have, I take it home and it’s tough to get over until you get the next win. That’s just how it is. That’s the nature of the business. And so people talk about having a release, there’s no release when you lose the release is winning the next game and so he wants to win and we understand that.”

James’ underwhelming start in the Lakers’ first 10 games has more critics than ever speculating if age is taking an inevitable toll. But when asked if poking fun at himself helps block out such outside noise, James simply scoffed.

“C’mon man, I’m turning 38 in almost two months,” he said. “And when you know who you are, to be honest, if you’re really, truly caring about what people say, that doesn’t matter.”

Lakers still missing in action

While the Lakers got James and Patrick Beverley back in the lineup on Wednesday night, they’re still far from whole.

The biggest piece missing is Lonnie Walker IV, who missed his second straight game with a non-COVID illness. Walker missed Wednesday’s shootaround, but the team held out hope for a few more hours that the 23-year-old might be able to join them. He’s averaging a career-best 15.3 points in the starting lineup, but Coach Darvin Ham emphasized Walker’s absence on defense calling him and Beverley “two of the best in the league” on the perimeter.

“When you don’t have that, another piece of your bulletproof vest, out there to withstand some of the offensive barrages that have been thrown your way,” Ham said, “it puts you in a bad place.”

The Lakers are also “a ways away” from adding Dennis Schröder and Thomas Bryant to the group, Ham said. The Lakers expect a more complete update on the duo this week, but neither have been able to play in the regular season after thumb surgery on back-to-back days last month. Both have been seen conditioning at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo in recent days.

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