EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Five months after getting swept out of the playoffs by the Denver Nuggets and just days before opening up yet another season — his 21st in the NBA — against the very same opponent, LeBron James generally took the high road when asked about the defending champions on Saturday.
“I don’t get motivated against [who] the opponents [are] pretty much anymore,” James said following one of the last training camp practices for the Lakers before the regular season tips off Tuesday in Denver. “I don’t need it. I don’t want to say I don’t get motivated to play, because I do get motivated to go against the competition, I love competing against the best. But I don’t need an individual or a team to motivate me. I’m self-motivated. I’m enough.”
James’ 20th season came to a close with a 40-point, 10-rebound, 9-assist performance in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. James played all 48 minutes, but it still wasn’t enough to stop L.A. from losing the game, 113-111, and the series, 4-0. The 38-year-old veteran told ESPN after the game that he would consider retirement in the offseason, with the season taking its toll on him both mentally and physically.
The Nuggets went on to beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, earning the first championship in franchise history, and took a few shots at L.A. as part of their celebration tour. Denver coach Michael Malone was introduced as “the Lakers’ daddy” during the team’s parade. Malone, once an assistant coach of James’ with the Cleveland Cavaliers, also poked fun at his former player’s retirement sentiments.
“Speaking of the Lakers, I just want you guys to know — this is breaking news — I’m thinking about retiring, so don’t tell anybody,” Malone said as a guest on “The Pat McAfee Show.”
James appeared to address Malone on his Instagram in June, without acknowledging him by name. “I hear I’m on your mind that much, huh??? I mean I guess I see why … Enjoy your light but just know I’m the SUN.”
When asked on Saturday what makes him respond to the many detractors who have taken aim at him over the course of his decades-long career, and what makes him sometimes choose silence, James vowed to bark back at everyone someday in the distant future.
“There will be a time,” James said. “When that time is, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s now or … there will be a time. There will be a time when everybody will get it, for sure.”
For now, he wants to get a chance to add a fifth title to his already impressive résumé.
“[I am] still seeing that Larry O’Brien Trophy in my mind on a daily basis,” James said.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham said this week that he believes there are eight teams that are “legitimate contenders” this season and “I like our chances better than anybody’s.”
James echoed his coach’s confidence but wouldn’t place L.A. amongst the rest of the field.
“We could be a really, really good team,” James said. He added: “I don’t even look to June. It’s too precious — the game is too precious — and I don’t play with the basketball gods like that. I don’t take it for granted.”
On Saturday, Ham finally named a fifth starter for the opener, revealing that Taurean Prince will join James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell with the first unit. Jarred Vanderbilt, who filled that position last season, had his sore left heel reevaluated Friday and was a limited participant at practice. Vanderbilt is listed as day-to-day by the team, and Ham said “in all likelihood” he would be unavailable against Denver.
While Vanderbilt continues to progress, L.A. will at least have its leader back at 100%, after James missed 27 games last season with a right foot injury.
“It took a few months, but then when I was able to get back into my workouts, I was able to do some things I wasn’t capable of doing throughout the whole playoffs, probably even before the playoffs,” James said of his offseason rehab. “My workouts started getting better, my wind started getting better, my quick-twitch started getting better. I didn’t have to think about it as much.
“It’s great to have that feeling, just have your motor back.”