Should We Feel Inspired Or Concerned About LeBron James’ 21st NBA Season? | Mark Medina
Written by: Mark Medina. Be sure to follow Mark on X (@MarkG_Medina).
Only two weeks into his 21st NBA season, LeBron James has already shown he can delay Father Time again with his recharged body, gravity-defying dunks and his heavy workload. Only 1 ½ months before he turns 39 years old, James has shown that his greatness and will aren’t enough to propel the Lakers to consistent wins.
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That reality leads to two seemingly contradictory statements. James and the Lakers should feel inspired that he can still play at a high level. James and the Lakers should also feel concerned that has only produced a 3-5 record following Wednesday’s 128-94 loss to the Houston Rockets.
For better and for worse, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. For better or for worse, the Lakers and James won’t have clarity yet on whether this two-week sample size turns into a season-long trend.
Not only is it premature for any NBA team to draw big-picture conclusions only two weeks into the season. Most NBA teams view 20-games as an appropriate benchmark to fully evaluate results, player performances and coaches rotations. The Lakers’ inconsistent start also stems from some unforeseen, and, perhaps temporary circumstances.
After helping the Lakers with his positional versatility following last season’s trade deadline, Rui Hachimura missed four games while remaining in the NBA’s concussion protocol before returning against the Rockets. After helping the Lakers’ defensive depth following the trade deadline, Jarred Vanderbilt has yet to play in a regular-season game (heel). The Lakers acquired a complementary two-way player (Gabe Vincent) and an athletic rim protector (Jaxson Hayes), but they have also nursed ailments.
Following his break-out summer with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, Austin Reaves appears fatigued amid inconsistent shooting stretches. After revitalizing the Lakers’ offense with his playmaking following the trade deadline, D’Angelo Russell has displayed both his strength and liability as a shooter. Following the Lakers’ one-point loss to Miami on Tuesday, the Lakers lamented that James received nearly as many free-throw attempts (four) as the team received technicals (three).
With time, it seems likely the Lakers will improve with better health , continuity and officiating. Regardless, the Lakers don’t need to play more games to reach this conclusion.
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It is not sustainable for James to maintain his current workload without help elsewhere. He has averaged a respectable 24.4 points on 55.8% shooting along with 8.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists, but the Lakers currently rank 10th in the Western Conference. James has held up just fine in 34.8 minutes per game, but it seems unlikely he can maintain that workload through a full season without feeling Father Time’s unforgiving touch.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham recognized this challenge right away. That explains why he limited James to 29 minutes in the Lakers’ season-opening loss to Denver. With the Lakers nursing a double-digit deficit to the Nuggets for most of the game, Ham saw little value in squeezing every ounce out of James just to give the Lakers a slim chance to beat a team that has most of its core players from last season’s championship run. Ham changed his plan with James when the Lakers had a chance to beat an injury-riddled Suns team (35 minutes) and prevail in overtime against Sacramento (39) and the Clippers (42). Following the Lakers’ season-opening loss, however, James has played under 35 minutes in only two other games (vs Orlando; 33; vs Houston; 27).
Ham has and will face season-long scrutiny on how well he prioritizes James’ long-term health over any short-term results. It would be foolish, though, to become the minutes police. Ham has reacted more to circumstances with the game itself than changing on his philosophy. But it’s clear that in order for James to reduce his workload, the Lakers will have to ease the burden for him.
That starts with Anthony Davis, whom James has tried to make the main offensive focal point ever since the Lakers acquired Davis four years ago. That dynamic worked well enough to win the 2020 NBA title. Following 2 1/2 seasons riddled with injuries and inconsistent performances, Davis became more durable and dependent during the Lakers’ run to the Western Conference Finals. After Davis devoted his offseason to improve his strength and conditioning, James proclaimed to ESPN that Davis is the face of the franchise. In fairness, Davis followed his sluggish opening night with four dominant games before nursing a hip spasm during Monday’s game in Miami. Davis missed Wednesday’s game against Houston, and who knows if he will play Friday against Phoenix.
Though their success or failure mostly hinges on Davis, the Lakers won’t thrive if their role players don’t perform. Consider Davis dominated in losses in Sacramento (30 points, 16 rebounds) and in Orlando (28 points, 13 rebounds), but that meant little amid the supporting cast’s overlapping injuries and uneven play. Both Reaves and Russell have shown signs they have already shaken off their recent shooting slumps. Hachimura, Vincent, Vanderbilt and Hayes could return from injuries soon.
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As for James?
So far, James hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. James has continued to make the right basketball play with his scoring and passing. James has shown his athleticism with numerous dunks. James has encouraged his teammates, including propping up Cam Reddish after missing a potential game-winning 3 against the Heat. With ESPN reporting the Lakers contacted the NBA’s league office about missed calls in Monday’s loss to Miami, James may eventually receive more whistles when he absorbs contact while attacking the basket.
Yet, it would be foolish to think that alone will create a consistently winning formula.
The Lakers valued continuity with their dependable role players partly so James wouldn’t have to replicate last season when he assumed a bigger scoring and playmaking burden to compensate for Russell Westbrook’s struggles and a flawed roster. As James eventually broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, the Lakers fell to 13th place leading into the trade deadline. A healthier Davis and improved supporting cast helped the Lakers make up enough ground. Though James suffered a right foot injury after taking a bad fall in a late February game against Dallas, you don’t need to be a medical doctor to conclude his overtaxed workload contributed both to a two-month absence and eventual post-season fatigue.
James can still play at his best so long as he can adopt the “less is more” approach. James can still dominate a game when the Lakers need him the most if he plays fewer minutes in games that they don’t. James can still dunk with authority if he takes fewer attempts. James can still score at ease so long as his teammates play well enough that defenses have to guard them, too. James can still facilitate so long as his teammates become ready to hit open shots more consistently. James can still lead the Lakers to his fifth NBA title with a fifth Finals MVP performance so long as he doesn’t have to show that same intensity in the winter.
The Lakers and James are aware of this reality, obviously. As the Lakers and James have experienced in the past month, however, they have become limited with their own circumstances.