Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
This week's topic: The Lakers doing right by LeBron James
By all accounts, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, head coach Darvin Ham and superstar LeBron James were all on the same page about a minutes restriction for the 38-year-old in his 21st season.
In fact, every move since the February trade deadline was made with that in mind, according to Pelinka.
"That was all done knowing LeBron is going into the 21st year," the executive said during a late-September media availability. "We have to partner with him to help him get all the way to the end, because that’s his goal. Adding the depth, the versatility, the shooting, all of those things are going to help us manage that."
In retrospect, maybe we should be more concerned if simply reaching the end of the season is James' goal. In practice, we should absolutely be concerned the Lakers abandoned this entire plan after one game.
James played 29 minutes of a 119-107 loss to the reigning champion Denver Nuggets on opening night, and it was clear how integral his every minute was to their success. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets by seven points when James was on the floor, and they were outscored by 19 in his 19 minutes on the bench. It is a testament to James' greatness that he is so singularly impactful on outcomes this far into his career.
Following the loss to Denver, Ham revealed that "in all likelihood, yes," the Lakers would limit James closer to 30 minutes per game than the team-leading 35.5 he averaged last season, which the veteran confirmed.
"This is the system in place, and I'm going to follow it," James said.
"It's easy with him to get caught up in the emotion of the game, and you tend to forget you want to play these long stretches," Ham said from the start of his second season at the helm, "but in order for him to be as effective as possible, we have to be mindful of the minute output and how long his stretches are."
James has averaged 37.3 minutes per game in four outings since that statement, including 42 in an overtime victory against the rival LA Clippers on Wednesday night. Only six players in the entire NBA have played more minutes than James through five games, and two of them are fellow Lakers veterans Anthony Davis and D'Angelo Russell, whose workloads are similarly concerning for entirely different reasons.
The Lakers are chasing early wins in conflict with their stated plan for James. He played all 12 minutes of a fourth-quarter rally against the Phoenix Suns in their second game. The Lakers's five-point lead evaporated in the single minute James sat in the final quarter against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, and naturally he played the entire overtime of their 132-127 loss. On the second night of a back-to-back on Monday, he played 33 minutes of a three-point win against the Orlando Magic. And James sat for a single possession of the fourth quarter on Wednesday, before once again playing the entire overtime of a win over the Clippers.
The team boasts a +8.7 net rating when James is on the court and a -23.2 net rating when he is not — a difference of 31.9 points per 100 possessions that nets out to a negative point differential for the team. He has played 52 of their 60 fourth-quarter minutes, where the difference with or without James is even starker.
There is a very real chance the Lakers would be 0-5 if Ham had stuck to the 30-minute limit for James. Again, this is remarkable for a soon-to-be 39-year-old who could become the NBA's all-time leader in both games and minutes played this season. And again, we should worry the Lakers are so dependent on him.
He has missed at least 27 games — or a third of an 82-game campaign — in four of the past five seasons. The 80 games he has missed over the past three years are nine more than he combined to miss in his first 15 seasons. These are the signs of basketball mortality the Lakers were forced to reckon with. James has taken an injury to each foot into the last two offseasons, including a torn tendon in his right foot for which multiple doctors recommended surgery in March. There is no indication he ever underwent the procedure.
James is trying to manage his own minutes on the floor. According to the NBA's tracking data, his average speed on defense is the slowest of any regular in the league. He has all but abandoned chasing offensive rebounds, and the percentage of his shots taken from 3-point range is the second-highest of his career.
And the Lakers have followed suit. They are the slowest team in the league — ranked 29th on offense and 30th on defense — and second from the bottom in contesting 3-pointers. Nobody scores fewer second-chance points, and they rank 24th in allowing them — a deficit of 8.4 points per game topped only by the Houston Rockets. They move the ball with less regularity (267.8 passes per game) than all but seven teams.
So much for the cavalry coming to alleviate James' responsibilities. Davis is off to a tremendous start, averaging a 26-13-3 with 4.4 combined steals and blocks per game on 53/43/85 shooting splits — which makes it more troubling that the Lakers have been in nothing but dogfights to start the season, since he too has missed 26 or more games in four of the last five seasons. There is little more help on the Lakers.
Austin Reaves has had a dreadful start to the season, shooting 34.5% from the field, 21.1% from distance and averaging nearly as many turnovers per game (2.8) as assists (3.4). The defense has been 27.3 points per 100 meaningful possessions worse when Reaves is on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. (Maybe Pelinka and Ham should have cooled it on likening Reaves to multiple Hall of Famers this summer.)
There is a lot of Russell, Christian Wood and Cam Reddish — 74.6 total minutes per game, to be exact — not exactly a winning recipe at many of their 14 combined previous stops. With James' foot off the gas defensively, the Lakers are asking everything of Davis just to be a middle-of-the-pack defense again.
Rui Hachimura, who signed a three-year, $51 million extension over the summer, and newcomer Jaxson Hayes have been bit players, placing an added strain on the frontcourt. The Lakers touted their depth throughout training camp, but they are deep with players whose previous teams were not sorry to see go.
Gabe Vincent, Jarred Vanderbilt, Hachimura and rookie Jalen Hood-Schifino have all been dealing with minor injuries already. The Lakers should hope to find a more trustworthy rotation with some combination of their healthy returns (Vincent and Vanderbilt taking minutes from Russell, Wood and Reddish should especially help on defense), a level-up they expected from Reaves and more faith in second-year guard Max Christie.
There will be adjustments to the rotation until they find a groove, to be sure. One potential lineup that could balance their needs on both ends of the floor — James, Davis, Reaves, Vincent and Taurean Prince — has played six meaningful possessions together. Ham has time to sort out which players he can actually trust.
In the aggregate, though, the Lakers still live and die with every minute James is either on the floor or the bench. They are fully aware of how tenuous the situation is with respect to both their record and his health, and prioritizing the former over the latter five games into an 82-game regular season is just playing with fire.
Determination: Fiction. The Lakers are overly reliant on an almost 40-year-old LeBron James.