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The Lakers Must Preserve Peak LeBron at All Costs

James is 17 years in and still undeniably one of the NBA’s best players. But even more inarguable? The fact that the soon-to-be 35-year-old, who is nursing a groin injury, needs to start pacing himself during the regular season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James has spent the better part of the last two decades dazzling basketball-loving audiences by doing things that few other players in history have ever been able to do. This is not one of those things:

That shot—a one-footed runner described on the play-by-play sheet as a “25-foot 3-point driving floating jump shot,” which is not a type of shot you see that often—came in the fourth quarter of a hotly contested rivalry game between James’s Lakers and the Clippers, their primary competition for the top spot in the Western Conference. It came after a stoppage in play caused when Kawhi Leonard bodied up LeBron at the 3-point line and knocked an entry pass away from him, sending the Lakers superstar to the floor and leaving him a spectator as the ball went out of bounds.

It was his eighth missed 3-pointer in the Christmas Day showdown. He’d finish with 10 missed long balls in 12 tries, the most he’d ever missed in a game in his 17-year career. It’s a play he can make: He’d just knocked in tough jumpers over the outstretched arms of Paul George and Leonard on the previous two Lakers possessions. But it’s not a high-percentage look, and it’s not the kind of play with which James has struck fear into the hearts of opposing defenses and fan bases since the early aughts.

It’s true that, when LeBron hits those types of shots, there’s nothing you can really do to stop him. When he’s taking them at all, though, and not bulldozing his way inside, then something’s already been done to stop him—whether by scheme or by circumstance.

Sometimes, it’s a bit of both. The Clippers can complicate James’s life like few other opponents, throwing elite wing stoppers like two-time Defensive Player of the Year Leonard and four-time All-Defensive Team selection George at him for the lion’s share of his offensive possessions. Those options get a boost, though, when James isn’t quite himself. If he didn’t look like the James of old on Wednesday—and despite finishing with 23 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists, he mostly didn’t—it might be because he took a knee to the groin while trying to draw a charge against Patrick Beverley just two minutes into the game:

Already nursing a “nagging groin issue,” James looked to lack burst and lift following the early collision. After the game—a 111-106 Clippers win in which Leonard once again looked like the best player on the floor—LeBron told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that “the contact with Beverley caused the groin area to ‘flare up.’” From that point on, only five of James’s 23 shots (21.7 percent) came at the rim, while 14 of the 23 (60.9 percent) came outside the paint. That’s a stark shift from his full-season numbers: According to Cleaning the Glass, 45 percent of James’s shot attempts have come at the basket, compared to 42 percent from beyond the free throw line.

James said the collision sent him “right back to where I was” when the discomfort caused him to sit out the Lakers’ December 22 loss to the Nuggets. That was the first game he’d missed in a season that has seen him lead the NBA in assists, propel the Lakers to the top of the West, and earn praise for somehow managing to look as good and in control as ever 17 years deep. And as he’s suited up nightly, averaging 35 minutes per game for a title contender, James has on multiple occasions expressed his distaste for the advancing trend of “load management.”

James has emphasized that he’s always going to play if he’s healthy—that he’s “probably got a good 45 years to not play basketball,” so he’s going to play every chance he gets. He’s spoken passionately about feeling an “obligation” to teammates and fans to get on the court whenever he can, because he knows that night might be the only chance someone in attendance ever gets to see him live. It’s a noble attitude, one that fits James’s hard-earned station as one of the sport’s elder statesmen, and one of the most towering figures in league history. It’s also a fairly recent development.

Way back in the ancient times of 2017, James joined Cavaliers teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in taking a night off during a nationally televised matchup with the Lob City–era Clippers, and arched an eyebrow when the league office went ballistic over it. Quoth the King: “I don’t think the NBA can do anything about it. At the end of the day, it sucks at times where certain guys have to rest, but certain guys need rest. And it’s a long, strenuous season. … A coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game.”

It is, increasingly, a star’s job, too. That’s why Leonard—a burr in James’s side for more than a half-decade, and now one of his chief rivals for the crown of best basketball player in the world—has yet to play in both ends of a back-to-back this season. Leonard, six long years LeBron’s junior, is averaging even fewer minutes per game than he did in Toronto last season, a lighter workload than James has ever shouldered in his 17 seasons. With his run to the 2019 championship and Finals MVP honors, and his strong start to his first season in L.A., Kawhi has become the league’s preeminent testament to the value of pacing yourself.

“Everything is about later, everything you do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters after Wednesday’s win, and that’s as true for James and the Lakers as it is for anybody in the NBA. There will be other questions to answer as the season goes along—is Kyle Kuzma a building block or a trade chip, how much can Frank Vogel rely on Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, is L.A. still one shot creator short, etc.—but by and large, the first third of the season clarified the most important point for these Lakers. So long as they have a fully functional LeBron alongside a fully weaponized Anthony Davis, they are good enough to contend with anyone. And as great as Davis is, though—and goodness, has he been great this season—LeBron remains the straw that stirs the drink.

Consider: The Lakers have outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions with James and Davis on the floor together. They’re plus-8.8-per-100 with James playing and Davis sitting. But they’ve been outscored by 2.8-per-100 when AD runs without LeBron.

Get Davis the ball with his back to the basket on the block, facing up from the elbow, or rolling to the rim after a high screen, and he can score against just about anybody. He’s not, however, the every-possession fulcrum of an elite offense, capable of creating high-quality looks for himself and the other four players on his team. Neither is anybody else currently on the Lakers roster. This is not intended as a slight; it’s just that LeBron James is LeBron Goddamn James, and they’re not, and so things tend to jitter, quake, and fall apart when he’s not around. (As they did against Denver last week.)

AD or no AD, the way the Lakers win a championship is with LeBron being Peak LeBron come mid-April. The best way to improve the chances of that happening is for the Lakers to do whatever’s in their power to get LeBron to springtime in one piece. As Leonard told reporters earlier this season, “My health is no. 1, and that’s gonna make us a better team.” The same is inarguably true for LeBron, and for a Lakers team that’s not as deep as Kawhi’s Clips.

Different teams have different views on the best way to keep their players in working order throughout the marathon NBA season. But it’s at least possible that it’d behoove James, who turns 35 next week, to pump the brakes on his dismissal of load management and consider that a brief siesta now that could prevent much more time on the shelf later.

“Several members of the [Lakers] organization already have approached James about the urgency to sit out and rehab his groin injury until he feels fully recovered,” sources told ESPN’s McMenamin. It’s unclear whether he’ll listen, or how long he’d be out if he did; he’s listed as day-to-day, and he said Wednesday that if he’s feeling good, he’ll be back in L.A.’s lineup this weekend. He should listen, though, and the desire to cast himself as a principled opposition to those who opt to take nights off shouldn’t keep him from doing so.

LeBron’s peers have nearly all fallen by the wayside; the only other members of the 2003 draft class who are still playing are Carmelo Anthony, who spent nearly a year out of the league before his recent return, and Kyle Korver, who is averaging 16.3 minutes per game. His primary rivals for the crown of the NBA’s premier night-after-night team-carrying superhero—Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden—are both much younger, with much lower numbers on their odometers. Even if he can still do what they do, being a team’s alpha and omega for eight straight months, maybe he shouldn’t be trying to do that at age 35; that was the idea behind getting Davis in the first place, right? (It might also be worth the Lakers’ while to consider finding strategic spots to get AD—who’s been durable the past few seasons, but who always seem to be playing through some nagging issue—a night off here and there, too.)

It’s admirable that James would want to rush back into the lineup for a weekend back-to-back against the Trail Blazers and Mavericks to try to halt the Lakers’ four-game losing streak. It’d also be pennywise and pound-foolish, though, with so much season still left to play.

“It’s December 25,” James told reporters after the Clippers loss. “We’ve got a long way to go before we can start to think about trying to compete against anyone in a seven-game series.”

It’s not too early to start thinking about how you hope to look when you get there, though. To achieve their lofty goals, the Lakers will need the kind of LeBron who batters and baffles defenses for 48 minutes, and not an ailing version who has to launch one-foot runners from 25 feet out just to try to get something on the rim. “It sucks at times where certain guys have to rest, but certain guys need rest,” James said in 2017. The Lakers’ championship chances could eventually depend on whether he’s wise enough to keep his own counsel.