LeBron James played 37 minutes in an opening-night loss to the Golden State Warriors. That, roughly, has been his career standard. In 18 NBA seasons, James has averaged 38.2 minutes per game. Since joining the Los Angeles Lakers, it's been a slightly more manageable 34.5, but when they won the championship in the 2020 postseason, that number jumped back up to 36.3.
Yet there has been considerable debate about whether or not it makes sense to keep him in that range. James has lost huge chunks of two of the past three seasons to injury, and he will turn 37 before the end of the year. Many have suggested that, in the name of his health, James should play fewer minutes for the Lakers. The addition of Russell Westbrook seemingly enabled the Lakers to pursue that plan, as it gave them a secondary ball-handler capable of running the offense without him.
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If James has his way, however, that opening night total of 37 minutes is roughly where he'll stay all season. "I don't play the game thinking about injuries," James told reporters Monday, prior to his opening-night tilt with the Warriors. "And I also feel worse when I play low minutes." This is an argument James has put forth several times, most recently last season, when a string of overtime games led to more calls for James to rest.
Whether or not he should isn't so simple. James was the best player on the floor Tuesday, scoring 34 points and racking up 11 rebounds and five assists in those 37 minutes against Golden State. The groin injury he suffered in 2018 might have been due to wear and tear, but last season's high ankle sprain was a freak accident caused by Solomon Hill diving into his leg. Prior to those two incidents, James had displayed almost superhuman durability, never missing more than 13 games in his first 15 NBA seasons.
Yet Father Time is undefeated. He's going to come for James eventually. Whether or not his workload hastens that process is unknowable, but the Lakers would be justified in assuming it might purely because it does for most other players. They saw firsthand what happened to Kobe Bryant in 2013 at the age of 34 when he averaged a staggering 43.5 minutes per game in his last 10 appearances down the stretch in a desperate bid to get the Lakers into the playoffs. He tore his Achilles and was never the same afterward.
James is older than Kobe was at that stage of his career. He's older than Michael Jordan was when he retired for the second time. We're in uncharted waters with LeBron already, and there's no telling just how much further he can push this. There is going to have to be some degree of compromise between him and the Laker training staff if they are going to maximize his nearly endless prime, but if opening night was any indication, James is still going to play big minutes when he has to.