SPECIAL REPORT | Can an overworked LeBron James still lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their 18th NBA title?
In the last six games, the Lakers have scored 669 points in total, and 135 of them come from James who has logged in 167.5 minutes when he should have played just half of that time
LeBron James wasn't too keen on the All-Star games. The veteran didn't hold back his punches when he openly expressed disappointment, saying he was pretty spent while the NBA was prepping for the traditional event. "I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” the league's top player told reporters. All said and done, Team LeBron comprehensively won against Team Durant, and while James had a forgettable day out, chances are he's happy about how it all panned out for him.
In what has already been a shortened regular season, 72 games instead of 82, teams have had less margins for errors, and the Los Angeles Lakers have made quite a few of them, despite being 24-13. Anthony Davis, the team's future star, has been sidelined with a strained calf and an aggravated Achilles, Dennis Schroder sat out due to COVID health and safety protocols, and the last five games have been a disappointment. In the absence of two of their key players, the side lost three of their last five games.
And all the while, the focus was on James. Questions about his workload were a staple. In the last six games, the Lakers have scored 669 points in total, and 135 of them came from James who has logged in 167.5 minutes when in reality, he should have played just half of that time. So, is James tired? He may not agree, he may still puff his chest and celebrate, and he may dismiss all theories of fatigue creeping up on the hard-worn musculature, but the very fact that he took a dump on the All-Star game is a timely reminder that he's human after all, despite having superhuman abilities.
While on the topic of errors, Frank Vogel's men have also had an inconsistent run when it comes to nailing those 3s. The team's overall three-point shooting stands at 35.1%, a slight but impactful dip from 35.4% post-season last year.
It isn't that there aren't great three-point shooters. The Lakers don't really need a Duncan Robinson sort of guy with KCP and Matthews in their ranks. And while we are guilty of judging them when they get a look-in and miss, aren't they trained to shoot them 3s day in and day out? 3s a 3. Whether it's butter or a dirty roll. But if the Lakers need to close out games and not give their opponents a chance of clawing back, shooting those 3s accurately is a must.
Back to James then; he currently leads the side in almost all categories except Blocks. With 25.8 points, 8 RPG, 7.8 APG, and 1.1 Steals, the 36-year-old has been desperately in need of some rest, and the All-Star break was a mixed bag. While the rest of the team, especially Davis, had the chance to kick back and get some much-needed time off from the game, James was out there trying to look happy, despite the exhaustion that was writ large on his face.
His unhappiness wasn't a secret either. "Obviously, I love our league. I love the game of basketball at the highest level and doing what I love to do," James said Sunday, via USA Today. "I just think under these circumstances with what we’re going through still with the pandemic and everything with the season, I just thought we could’ve looked at it a little bit differently. But that’s out of my hands. I can only control what I can control."
However, if he can control something, that would be how to make sure the Lakers are ready for a grueling second half. They have eight back-to-back games in the upcoming half (They had only five in the first half of the tournament). The remainder of their March games are against formidable opponents in the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. This is followed by a string of marquee clashes against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, and the Utah Jazz.
James has always maintained he's a professional. For those who know how the Lakers star operates, it's all or nothing in every game and that comes as a motivation for a side that could sorely do with a good dose of it. They have the bench that has been impressive in patches, but a rejuvenated James can surely fire up a team that has quality depth in Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Wesley Matthews, and Markieff Morris. Add starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gasol, Schroder, and Davis into the mix, the team's an absolute blockbuster.
But, a lot still rests on James. He's their biggest name after the legendary Kobe Bryant and is a proven match-winner. If the purple and gold are still to be favorites for defending their title and notching up an 18th NBA Championship, they need to monitor James' minutes and get the most out of him as they enter the playoffs. They will be hoping for a fit-again Davis as he easily shoulders 50% of James's load. The mantra for Vogel is simple: Use James wisely, unleash him in the playoffs.
For that, the rest of the Lakers need to be a notch or two better than they are right now.