Heading into the 2023-24 season, the Lakers planned to impose a minutes restriction on LeBron James. As agreed upon with personal trainer Mike Mancias and the coaching staff, he would be limiting his time on the court to under 30 minutes throughout the regular season in order to preserve his body for the playoffs. The intent was understandable. The 19-time All-Star was about to turn 39, and his history of injury since heralding the cause of the purple and gold in 2018 necessitated an approach with the long view in mind.
Which was all well and good. Keeping James fresh for the games that truly count was precisely why Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka went for roster depth in the offseason. The complementary skill sets of those around him were envisioned to preclude them from relying on him any time, all the time. As pro hoops annals have proven time and again, however, the harshness of reality trumps the soundness of purpose. In keeping with the established blueprint, he played 29 minutes in their opener against the vaunted Nuggets. To place his importance in perspective, it’s worth noting that he was a plus-seven when he burned rubber, while they went a whopping minus-19 without him on the court.
Therein lies the dilemma. On one hand, the Lakers are right to look after James early on; they wouldn’t want him to break down en route to their projected run for the title. On the other, they’re flirting with danger by holding him back. How are they going to win in a stacked league when arguably their most vital cog is on the bench? If subsequent matches are any indication, head coach Darvin Ham has made his choice. Since the blowout setback to the defending champions, the four-time Most Valuable Player awardee has played 35, 39, 33, 42, and 35 minutes. And the clincher is that they’re not just better when he’s on the floor; they’re much, much better. In six outings, he is a robust plus-47 when he plays; meanwhile, they’re an abhorrent minus-69 when he doesn’t.
Bottom line, parity in the National Basketball Association has become such that James cannot rest any more than he has to. The fact that the Lakers have been beset by injuries serves only to underscore their plight. With Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, and Gabe Vincent having already missed time, they have had to rely on a shortened rotation that compels him to take on more load than projected. To his credit, he has been his usual spectacular self thus far. Given his advancing age and increasing susceptibility to physical ailments, however, it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep chugging along at the same pace.
At this point, the Lakers are hoping the chicken-and-egg situation will resolve itself once they get back to full strength. The rub, of course, is that absences have become the norm rather than the exception in the league. And their worst fear is that these absences will subsequently include his. There is no easy answer, but if they’re to give credence to their lofty aspirations, they better hope they find one sooner rather than later.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.