LeBron James is a self-starter. He's the sort of person who could walk into a job interview and cite "working too hard" as his greatest weakness and actually mean it. He's made an entire career out of lifting good teams up to greatness and great ones up to championships, but that's not what he's doing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Right now, he's banging his head against the wall for a roster even he isn't strong enough to carry.
Anthony Davis is expected to miss several more weeks as he recovers from a calf strain. Dennis Schroder has been held out of the past three games -- all losses -- due to the NBA's health and safety protocols. That has left James as not only the last high-end scorer left in the Lakers lineup, but also the team's only capable ball-handler. The strain it has put on LeBron to create every shot for the Lakers has been considerable.
The Lakers made a concerted effort not to overexert LeBron when the season began. He averaged only 32.4 minutes across his first eight games of the season, a number that has ballooned to 37.5 in his last eight. The minutes themselves are only part of the story. It's what's happening within them that's so disturbing. Ever since injuries and overtimes became this team's norm, James has been totally unable to take possessions off. NBA.com's tracking data proves that.
|LeBron||Average touches per game||Average time of possession (minutes)|
This is a player who recently uttered the words "I don't get tired." He is not going to ask for a breather. Far from it. After Monday's overtime loss to the Washington Wizards, James, who has played in all 32 Lakers games this season, dismissed the idea of resting entirely.
"I think this whole narrative of 'LeBron needs more rest' or I should take more rest or I should take time here, it's become a lot bigger than what it actually is," James told reporters after the loss to Washington. "I've never talked about it, I don't talk about it, I don't believe in it. We all need more rest, s---. This is a fast turnaround from last season, and we all wish we could have more rest. But I'm here to work, I'm here to punch my clock in and be available to my teammates."
So frustrated is James with the chorus of concerned on-lookers calling for him to take a night off that he lashed out at the entire concept, arguing that his job is to play as long as he is physically capable of doing so.
"I have never asked for time off or time throughout the season," James said. "And it's growing to a point where it's not even coming from me anymore. It's just like, 'OK, LeBron should take time off' or 'Why is his workload at this?' I've been hearing it for five, six, seven years now, and I'm still going strong. So I don't need a handout, I'm not looking for a handout; my job is to go out when I'm available, when I'm healthy to go out and play, and that's what it's all about."
James might have a point. While a missed free throw at the end of regulation cost the Lakers Monday's game, on balance, there isn't much evidence suggesting that he's tiring out as games progress. In fact, his fourth-quarter field goal percentage has risen from 39 percent in his first 16 games to 48.2 percent in his last 16. He's at 50 percent in overtimes, and while the small sample here is far from reliable, LeBron's track record is bulletproof. There has never been reason to believe that he can't handle high minute totals, and he's almost always dominated his own offenses.
But glimpses of a ceiling appeared in the 2020 postseason, when he played the fewest playoff minutes of his career by a wide margin. He was 35 then. He's 36 now. He had only half of an offseason thanks to COVID-19, and he's already played the seventh-most minutes in NBA history. No other active player is in the top 30. It might come in a month. It might come in a year. It might come in a decade. But eventually, Father Time is going to add another "W" to his undefeated record.
The Lakers might be able to justify hastening that process for the right prize, but they have very little to gain by playing this way. If the No. 1 seed isn't already lost, it likely will be on Wednesday when the Lakers visit the Jazz, already 3 1/2 games ahead of them in the standings, without Davis or Schroder in the lineup. Utah is 20-2 in its last 20 games, and the gap is only likely to widen by the time Davis returns. Home court over a Clippers team the Lakers share an arena with is essentially meaningless. Immediate wins are a luxury. Health, as these absences have proven, is a necessity in the postseason.
James might not be risking his by playing this much now. His effectiveness might remain uncompromised in perpetuity. But why make that bet for no reward? At the moment, the answer appears to be placating James. He doesn't want to rest, so the Lakers are playing him. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's LeBron.
But there's an argument to be made that this shouldn't be a unilateral decision. Sometimes, tough love has served James quite well. His former head coach in Cleveland, Ty Lue, famously yelled at him midway through Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals in an effort to coax more aggression. We all know how that played out.
Whether the Lakers would choose to sit James for the occasional game if given the option is unclear. His early-season workload suggests that they might. Common sense dictates that they might benefit from such an arrangement. But at this point, James doesn't seem interested. He's working too hard once again, and if he's not careful, it might actually turn into a weakness for the Lakers.