The Los Angeles Lakers play their first preseason game Sunday, but as will be the case so often this season, the real storyline has to do with LeBron James — as in, how much will the superstar actually play in the team’s unofficial opener. Head coach Luke Walton confirmed Thursday that James will play, but the matter of how much he plays is very much in flux.
There are plenty of reasons why James should not have to subject himself to playing preseason basketball. He has played more minutes than any active player in the league, including eight straight runs to the NBA Finals, as well as playing all 82 games for the first time in his career last year.
LeBron told ESPN Wednesday, “I don’t need preseason games [at this stage of my career] to get ready.” As Dave McMenamin noted in that piece, LeBron played sparingly in three preseason games in 2016, and only once in 2017. Both of those Cleveland teams ended up as Eastern Conference champions, so they clearly didn’t suffer for ditching the extra practice time.
But on a new team, in a new conference, the preseason presents a new opportunity for LeBron, one that he should take full advantage of.
First of all, the Lakers have little continuity from last season. According to NBA.com, Los Angeles ranks 27th in the league in terms of the number of minutes played by returning players, at 57 percent. With five new free agent signings and two rookies who could play meaningful minutes, it would behoove the Lakers to use whatever time they have to start building some team chemistry. Given that LeBron is the most important player on this roster — full stop — his presence is required.
Earlier in the offseason, James explained that the Lakers are playing catchup against teams like Golden State that have more continuity.
“They can pick up right where they left off, starting with training camp, if they start today or whenever they start,” James said. “We’re picking up from scratch, so we have a long way to go.”
The best time for the Lakers to start catching up would ideally be now, in the preseason.
The NBA has condensed training camp and preseason in recent years to spread out the games in the regular season and prevent further wear and tear on the players. This also means that there is less time for new players and teams to learn a playbook before the season starts. Walton has said that he intends to treat his preseason like practice or a shootaround, potentially even running the same three plays repeatedly in Sunday’s game. It might be nice for the Lakers to have their lead ball-handler on the floor if they’re getting reps in for the upcoming season.
Then there’s the fact that LeBron James is a system in and of himself. Several of his former teammates have noted that James’ teams don’t really run a set offense — many of their plays are dictated by James and how he sees the floor.
Clearly, there’s no issue with this philosophy, as LeBron’s teams have always performed at an elite level on offense with him on the court. But if the offense relies so heavily on one player, which may or may not change with the type of personnel the Lakers have surrounded LeBron with this year, then that player should be seeing some regular game action, even if it comes in the preseason.
When James joined the Miami Heat in 2010 and rejoined the Cavaliers in 2014, both of those teams got off to relatively slow starts. Miami started the season 9-8, punctuated by James “grazing” Erik Spoelstra’s shoulder while walking back to the bench in a loss to Dallas. Cleveland started the season 19-20, albeit losing several games while its star took a midseason hiatus.
In the Western Conference, the Lakers cannot afford to hover at .500 that late into the season, both for basketball reasons and to avoid the inevitable media storm that would follow. The depth of the West demands that Los Angeles start off well, and that requires using all of their available practice time. There is no grace period like there is in the East, even if some may call it a “respectable” conference.
Lastly, it has been five years since Laker fans could watch a legitimate superstar take the floor in purple and gold (all due respect to 2014 Pau Gasol and post-Achilles Kobe Bryant). It’s selfish, yes, but completely understandable to root for James to give his new fanbase a few extra minutes, even in games where the outcome is inconsequential.
James is apparently not immune to this feeling himself, as McMenamin reported, “A source close to James told ESPN that the star forward’s “joy” coming from being in his new surroundings could cause James to play a little more in the preseason than he normally does.”
No one is asking LeBron to play 40 minutes, or even 30, during this preseason. Wins are definitely not even in consideration. If LeBron weren’t a cyborg who seemingly never gets injured, I wouldn’t suggest this. But if the Lakers want to be at their best this year, they need as much time as possible for their new players to get accustomed to one another. Preseason is a necessary part of the process.