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Six Theories About Why LeBron’s Injury Status Has Been So Unclear

After being “day-to-day” in December, we now know James was always going to be out for at least three weeks. Why was no one upfront about his status?

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I did not expect to feel so misled about the state of LeBron James’s groin. But anything about LeBron is significant news, especially in late January and especially if that news is what’s kept him out of Los Angeles’s past 14 games. James’s injury status has been shrouded in mystery and misinformation for nearly a month.

Here’s a quick timeline of the public updates since James went down on Christmas Day with a left groin strain:

  • Immediately after the play, James told Lakers staff “I felt a pop.” Thanks to the nature of the word “pop,” this was easy to lip-read from the broadcast.
  • Shortly after, Mike Trudell reported he was “questionable to return,” later announcing he would not.
  • Still on December 25, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes tweeted that an initial exam showed it was a “slight” groin strain, and “all is intact.” “It could have been worse,” he wrote.
  • On December 26, James had an MRI, and the results were said to come back clean; he was listed as day-to-day. “Dodged a bullet,” James tweeted. “#BackInNoTime.”
  • A day later, sources told ESPN the Lakers were “prepared” for James to miss multiple games.
  • On January 4, after James had missed four games, The Athletic reported he’d be evaluated again in a week.
  • In the days that followed, the Lakers announced James’s status only one or two games in advance—with the occasional news that he’s “getting shots up.”
  • On January 15, James’s agent, Rich Paul, revealed that the MRI was not clean, and had actually shown a tear. His camp was given, at best, a three-week recovery time, even as the public was led to believe James was “day-to-day.” James likely had this information when he hashtagged—the hashtag was a crime in and of itself—#BackInNoTime. Paul told ESPN his client would miss at least the next two games.
  • On January 19, coach Luke Walton was hopeful James would return to practice the next day, and he’s now participating in noncontact drills.
  • On Wednesday, James was officially ruled out of Thursday’s game against the Timberwolves.

Why hide the severity? On Wednesday, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote about the gambling implications. James is infamously rarely injured, but this is the second time in a year he’s concealed an injury. After a Finals sweep, he said he “pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand” after pulling a Marcus Smart and punching a whiteboard after Game 1. (Wouldn’t you?) The sketchy information on the injuries has “highlighted an issue that is bubbling just below the surface as the NBA strikes gambling-related deals and ramps up its association with the sports betting industry after decades of combating it,” Windhorst wrote.

Legal gambling brings a new wrinkle to what the league will need to consider when it comes to injury reports. But unless James is Pete Rose 2.0, it doesn’t explain why the injury was kept under wraps for so long. I didn’t expect to have six theories on LeBron James’s groin. But here we are:

1. Keep L.A.’s Young Players Competing

The Lakers are already struggling without James. (If you expected anything otherwise, please stay away from the aforementioned gambling.) They’ve gone 5-9 without him, and are ninth in the Western Conference. It’s easier to hold on day-to-day when you don’t know James could be out for six weeks. Worst-case scenario, it might start to feel like a lost season. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma have only ever known losing. The young core needs to learn how to grow as a unit anyway, and that’s less likely to happen if they fall back into thinking there aren’t stakes. Who wants to disappoint LeBron James?

2. James Wanted Privacy

A long timeline only adds to public pressure about whether the Lakers can pull off a playoff run. In December, Kevin Durant called the environment around James “toxic” because of “groupies in the media that love to hang on every word.” On a more personal level, James is newly 34. (Capricorn. Of course.) It’s remarkable how injury-free his career has been, but he is getting—in basketball years—older. There’s an element of pride to it.

And, again, maybe LeBron didn’t want to highlight the severity of his GROIN INJURY.

3. Ticket Sales

If fans knew James would be out well in advance, they’d be more inclined to skip those games. There’s just not as much appeal to watching heavy Lance Stephenson minutes. Ticket sales are the reason the league created stricter rules about resting players last season, giving commissioner Adam Silver more authority to fine teams that violate the guidelines. Players’ statuses are often announced the day before a game or the day of, leaving unhappy fans, but fans who already handed over their money. (This theory assumes the Lakers were in the know—more on that later.)

4. Keeping Opponents on Their Toes

Los Angeles has now muddied the waters regarding any future injury to LeBron. In the future, if James is actually day-to-day, it’ll throw off the competition. Front offices play mind games all the time, and general manager Rob Pelinka was a savvy agent in his past life.

5. To Not Let Opponents Know How Dire the Situation Is

When James received his MRI results, every team in the Western Conference except Phoenix was competing for the playoffs. (Following rumors that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are on the trading block, it looks like Memphis is now considering a pivot to tanking.) Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota, Sacramento, Utah, and the other team in Los Angeles are all making the push. Knowing James is out for an extended period could incentivize other organizations to go full-out, thinking there is an extra spot in the playoff race.

6. The Lakers Didn’t Know

Let’s take the full, galaxy-brained tilt toward conspiracy. Rich Paul also recently spoke directly with ESPN about the health of another Klutch Sports client, Anthony Davis, who suffered a left index finger injury. It’s easier now than ever to postulate reasons agencies would prefer to keep their players’ health plans private. Markelle Fultz’s camp has contradicted Philadelphia multiple times; Kawhi Leonard sought out specialists after San Antonio’s doctors declared him healthy. It’s reasonable, especially in a player-control era, for a player to want to take agency of his own recovery and to come back on his own terms—and so maybe the Lakers were in the dark the same way the public was.

James’s relationship with the Lakers brain trust is relatively new. Trust forms over time. When Leonard’s trust with the Spurs was broken last season after San Antonio pressured him to return before he felt ready, he was on the receiving end of the criticism for not being all in for his team. Though it’s difficult to imagine anyone making James do anything he doesn’t want to, expectations for him are higher than for anyone else.