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Either LeBron James made a startling admission over the weekend, or he wants us to think he did.
"I knew I wasn't going to get back to 100%," the Los Angeles Lakers superstar told reporters after Friday's loss to the Sacramento Kings, his first outing back from a high ankle sprain that cost him 20 games — his longest absence ever in the NBA. "It's impossible. I don't think I will ever get back to 100% in my career."
This should be Earth-shattering news. One of the greatest players in the history of the game just informed us he may never perform to his full capacity again. The 36-year-old James has defied all odds extending his prime into an 18th season, winning Finals MVP honors last season and establishing himself as the favorite for the regular-season award prior to exiting a loss to the Atlanta Hawks with his ankle injury on March 20.
Only, we have heard this in many forms from James before.
"I don’t remember the last time I was 100%," he told reporters on opening night of the 2017-18 season after missing most of the preseason with a sprain in his other ankle. "I’m 15 years in — there’s no 100%."
We are left to speculate what James means by 100%. Is there some past version of himself he considers full strength — presumably his back-to-back MVP and consecutive Finals MVP performances in 2012 and 2013 — that he believes is "impossible" to reclaim? That wouldn't really be a revelation. That's just aging.
James spent last season making #WashedKing a hashtag. He found motivation in a narrative that did not exist. Plenty of people, myself included, questioned how James would return from a groin injury that interrupted and ultimately ended his 2018-19 campaign prematurely — then the most serious injury of his career. It was a question of how long he could continue to defy the odds and perform at a level no other player alive approaches when his switch is turned on, not whether he was washed, and he raged against it.
"With me with injuries," James said upon tearing his groin in 2018, "I'm never too concerned about them."
For good reason. Prior to joining the Lakers, James had missed more than seven games in a season just once — in 2014-15, when he took two weeks off to restore nagging knee and back injuries. He "felt better" than he had all year when he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, carried them to an astonishing title victory the following season and played all 82 games two years after that, leading the league in minutes at age 33.
You too might begin to feel invincible. The groin injury and ensuing playoff absence afforded James the longest offseason of his career. Renewed, he returned, Anthony Davis at his side, and rode #WashedKing for every last laugh and a second-place MVP finish. The coronavirus pandemic allotted James four more months off before another title run in the bubble. Maybe he wasn't invincible. Maybe he was well-rested.
And maybe Friday's comments were an acknowledgement of that. "I don't think I will ever get back to 100% in my career" is a far cry from this tweet at the time of his ankle injury: "Back soon like I never left."
It is no secret the quick turnaround from last season and condensed schedule has taken its toll on players league-wide. It would also not be surprising if James has paid the steepest price. He played 41 minutes in a title-clinching Game 6 of the 2020 Finals on Oct. 11, and then reported to training camp on Dec. 1. James played 36 straight games spanning his 36th birthday prior to resting once just before the All-Star break.
"I want to feel as good as I possibly can," he said after eight off days wrapped around his shortest stint in 17 All-Star appearances. "But at the end of the day, I’m never going to be healthy again. I haven’t been healthy since the first year I entered the league. You get bumps and bruises and nicks and knacks. I do a great job of keeping my body in the best possible shape that I can possibly be in that particular season."
If we're operating under the theory that LeBron James has never been healthy in his NBA career, it is safe to disregard his comments. It's hard enough to read into the matter-of-fact manner in which he said them.
Only, 17 days after resting for the first time this season, two weeks after playing in an All-Star Game he wished never happened and nine days after saying, "I'm never going to be healthy again," James suffered the worst injury of his career. He returned Friday to declare, "I don't think I will ever get back to 100%," and two days later left a loss to the Toronto Raptors with pain in his ankle. He conceded the ankle bothered him in both his games back from injury, and he will reportedly sit Monday's game against the Denver Nuggets.
"If I'm not 100% or close to 100%,” James told reporters, "it don't matter where we land."
If the Lakers' title hopes are tied to his ability to perform at 100%, and he will never be 100% again, then we are being led to believe his viability as the cornerstone of a champion is done. And no one believes that.
There is always a chance James is slow-playing us — that this is a built-in (and bona fide) excuse for failing to repeat. His staunch opposition to the play-in tournament felt similar, especially since it came as his team fell into a virtual tie for the West's seventh seed and a non-guaranteed playoff spot. Should they emerge as champions through all this self-accentuated adversity, all the better for his legacy. He will be free to add a third to what he already considers "the two hardest championships in NBA history," another outsized claim.
There's also always a chance James is being real with us — that Father Time is finally catching up to him. He is one minute shy of 50,000 in his career, which combined with his 10,811 playoff minutes leaves him behind only Karl Malone and Kareem Adbul-Jabbar in that regard. There's the chance the respite leading to last year's title was the anomaly, not the two most serious injuries of his career in the years sandwiching it.
On Monday, James will miss his 53rd game since injuring his groin on Christmas 2018. He missed 57 in his first 12 seasons. He has played only 152 games in the past 32 months. In the previous 32, he played 247.
Should this not be some sort of rope-a-dope strategy from James, and should his comments regarding his health and the Lakers' chances ring true, then we should be making a bigger deal of it. Next season will be no less forgiving — a full 82-game slate following another shortened offseason — and James will turn 37.
At some point, questions about his ability to play at an unparalleled level will be founded. Except, James has defied the odds for so long, we will now only believe it when we see it, not necessarily when he says it.
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