LeBron James made his long-awaited return to the Lakers lineup on Sunday when the team took on the Chicago Bulls. But in a surprise twist, James was not reinstated into the starting lineup, as team opted to play it safe coming off his foot injury, which had kept him out of the past 13 games.
LeBron coming off the bench is a rare occurrence. Over his 20 storied NBA seasons, James had played in 1,679 games between the regular season and playoffs prior to Sunday, and had started 1,678 of them.
In honor of just the second reserve appearance of his career, here is an extremely brief history of James' time coming off the bench in the NBA.
The first and only other time that James came off the bench was back on Dec. 11, 2007, during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It came under similar circumstances. James had suffered a sprained finger on Nov. 28, when Detroit Pistons center Nazr Mohammad fouled him on a drive to the basket. (That, of course, would not be the last incident involving the two players.)
The injury kept James out for five games, and he had to wear protective padding upon his return. Even so, then-Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown was planning to put James straight back into the starting lineup, but it was the budding young star who suggested otherwise.
It just so happened that Cavs forward Anderson Varejao had recently ended his holdout by agreeing to a three-year, $17 million deal, and the Dec. 11 game against the Pacers was set to be his first home game of the season. In order to try and protect his teammate from any negative feedback from the fans, James came up with a plan to have them both come off the bench, along with Larry Hughes, who was also returning that night from an 11-game absence.
"I thought it would raise the intensity of the fans, having me, Larry and Andy come into the game at the same time -- and it worked," James said. "I thought by coming in with Andy, it might stop some of the boos Andy might get.
"(I was) just protecting my teammates."
The plan was a major success. Hughes was actually the star of the show, finishing with 36 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks on 13-of-17 in a truly brilliant performance. James, meanwhile, went for 17 points and five assists, while Varejao added six points and nine rebounds. The Cavs' bench dominated on the night (James was a +27 in 22 minutes) as they cruised to a 118-105 win.
"It was a good feeling," James said. "You go through a stretch when you're losing games and people were looking at us like we're not a good team.
"We knew once we got all our guys back that it would be a totally different story."
James, of course, returned to the starting lineup for the next game. There he remained, for 15-plus years and three different organizations, until his streak of started games finally came to an end on Sunday.