WASHINGTON – Throughout the offseason, LeBron James heard the naysayers.
After reaching the NBA Finals eight straight years and winning three championships, James suffered the first serious injury of his career and missed the playoffs in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He heard league observers question his age and diminish his standing in the league's hierarchy, placing MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard above him. He heard the notion that he no longer plays defense.
And James, beginning his 17th season and turning 35 next month, is out to prove the naysayers wrong.
"It's a motivation for myself," he said after Friday's overtime win in Dallas. "After the injury last year on December 25th, I wasn't myself just because of the groin. It wasn't allowing me to be explosive or have quick-twitch plays, which I'm very good at. I heard it all, from year 17, to is this the last that we've seen of LeBron in the fashion that he plays, and that he's not very good defensively."
After a season-opening loss to Leonard and the rival Clippers, James has been spectacular. He is averaging 25.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and a career-high 11.2 assists, which tops the NBA.
This weekend, James had 39 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds at Dallas and 21 points, 13 assists and 11 boards at San Antonio as Los Angeles won twice to improve to 5-1, topping the Western Conference. He became the first Laker since 2006 to register consecutive triple-doubles.
"I'm playing injury free. I'm not injured," he explained. "My quick twitch is back. My speed is back, my strength is back."
Last season, James averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists - combined thresholds no other player reached. But the injury which cost him 27 games, the defensive shortcomings and the Lakers missing the playoffs for the sixth straight year worked against him.
James was named to the All-NBA Third Team, the first time since 2007 he was not on the First Team. He was 11th in MVP voting, the first time ever he was outside the top 10.
The whispers about his defense seem to bother James the most. He has not made an All-Defense team since 2014 but is showing a rediscovered commitment to that end of the floor.
"You can't single me out. There will never be a possession where a coach or a teammate or a player on an opposing team will single me out defensively because I'm in tune with that side as well," he said. "We've got a lot of guys who play the defensive side and it's important for me to play that side as well. So I take that challenge just as much as the offensive end."
James does have better defenders alongside him this season starting with superstar Anthony Davis, one of the NBA's top defensive big men. Also on board are guards Danny Green and Avery Bradley, veterans with a defensive pedigree.
And centre Dwight Howard - a three-time former Defensive Player of the Year plucked off waivers - appears rejuvenated and has strengthened the team's defense.
"Any time he's on the floor, he always seems to do something huge for us," Davis said.
Thus far, the Lakers are first in points allowed per 100 possessions (96.5), second in opponents' shooting (.402) and fifth in opponents' three-point shooting (.301).
Despite the star power and the "showtime" environment that comes with playing for the Lakers, James knows the path to another championship begins on the defensive end.
"We're a very good team," he said. "We're just scratching the surface. We're a very good team defensively."