Feature writing legend Baxter Holmes wrote an incredible story for ESPN this week on the (sometimes insane) lengths that NBA players are going to optimize their sleep — including using machines that scan their brainwaves — and how big of a problem the lack of proper rest is within the NBA.
The four-time MVP famously says he invests seven figures a year on his fitness and physical well-being. But the one thing James has come to appreciate more than anything is sleep. In James’ hotel rooms on the road, the temperature is set to 68-70 degrees, nearby electronics are shut off 30 to 45 minutes before he settles into bed -- and when that happens, a sleep app on his phone serenades him with the soothing sound of rain falling on leaves. As James said on a podcast with author and efficiency expert Tim Ferriss: “There’s nothing more important than optimal REM sleep.”
The challenges of getting such “optimal REM sleep” aren’t the only obstacles James and the Lakers will face on their quest to keep the 34-year-old star healthy and ready for a bounce-back season after the first serious injury of his career, a torn groin that cost him a career-high 27 games last season. The same goes for Anthony Davis, who at only 26 years old is not locked in the same battle with Father Time that James is, but given his history of dings and importance to the Lakers moving forward has to be treated with some level of caution as well.
Beyond getting better sleep — which the schedule makes it hard to do — one of the other ways for the Lakers to manage the loads of their stars is the strategy of, well, load management, which is most commonly recognized as the practice of a team resting star players in one of the two games of a back-to-back.
According to NBAStuffer.com, the Lakers have 12 back-to-backs this year, nine of which will come on the road. Their total is less than 16 other teams (who each have 13 or 14 back-to-backs) will face, but as Holmes’ story outlines above, the nine they face on the road may be tougher to deal with because of how difficult it is to get proper sleep while flying out of one city after a game, heading from the airport to a hotel and then playing another game the very next night.
Only three other teams — the San Antonio Spurs (10), Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors (11 each) — have more than the Lakers’ nine road back-to-backs, while nine other teams are tied with them. Still, this means that the Lakers will be dealing with nearly as many such situations as any team in the league, and more than any other contender (the Clippers have 8, but none of the teams ahead of or even with the Lakers other than maybe the Denver Nuggets are expected to contend for the title). The Lakers also have the fewest games with three or more days of rest, with just two such contests.
How much will the Lakers utilize load management in such situations? New head coach Frank Vogel has mostly played coy thus far.
“We’ll make decisions that make sense. On a case-by-case basis, player-by-player basis. We still have, to me, a long way to go with rhythm and timing and conditioning to get ready for opening night,” Vogel said last week when asked about load management after the Lakers returned home from their preseason trip to China, another travel obstacle — to say nothing of the stress the team probably had to deal with while over there given the diplomatic tensions at the time — that no other contender has to deal with this year.
Still, Vogel thinks his team needs to work on the timing, conditioning and rhythm he references, and can only do so on the floor.
“That’s probably got to continue into the first couple weeks of the season, so load management isn’t really on my mind right now,” Vogel said. “We’ll meet with the medical team about it. I’ll defer to them in terms of what’s best for our players to keep them fresh throughout the season and we’ll go from there.”
The good news is that the Lakers have dealt exceptionally well with back-to-back situations during most of their history, boasting the second-best back-to-back winning percentage of any franchise since 1948. That trails only the Boston Celtics over that time, according to data analysis from Sleep Junkie.
However, the Lakers’ overall wining percentage was also second in the time frame measured (trailing only the Spurs), meaning that they were winning a lot regardless of situation, potentially skewing those results a bit. They fared less well in back-to-back scenarios last season, winning just 40% of such games.
The difference this year, critically, is that the Lakers have Davis to share the load with James, who was often asked to do too much early on last season, figuratively being asked to run uphill in the snow to get to his normal production due to how poorly the Lakers optimized his talents with the lack of shooting they put around him.
With Davis and shooters surrounding James now, he may not need to work as hard to produce, something Vogel highlighted after last Wednesday’s preseason drubbing of the Warriors.
“Hopefully the two of them can help each other reduce the workload. It doesn’t have to always go through LeBron,” Vogel said. “It doesn’t have to always go through AD. And quite frankly, even when those guys are out, I love the role players that we have and their ability to carry the load as well.
“We’ve got a number of shooters out there that can make you pay when we force help, and there’s a lot of experience on our club. Hopefully, the usage and workload will be spread out.”
Davis agreed with Vogel’s assessment.
“It takes a load off of me. I was joking with LeBron earlier, it’s the first time in a while where I can have five or six points, whatever it was a half time, and we were up 30. It feels good knowing that you don’t have to do much. Everybody has a role, and when you have guys all across the board scoring the basketball, you don’t need to do everything every possession,” Davis said.
“It feels good to be able to just fit in and then when the ball comes away either score or pass it.”
Still, that was just one preseason game. The Lakers have a long way to go to figure out if Quinn Cook going off for 16 points or Avery Bradley going 4-5 from 3-point range will be a common enough occurrence to allow James and Davis to get some extra rest, whether by sitting out entirely or by blowout-induced early finishes to their evenings.
The team almost assuredly has to have some sort of plan to get James some rest otherwise, but he knows how plans often go once things don’t go according to them. And after several years of James’ teams attempting to lessen his load before eventually needing him to carry them or collapse trying, James’ face expanded into a wide, knowing grin when asked what he thought of Vogel’s theory that his workload would be lessened by how much help the team has given him.
”That sounds good. It sounds good,” James said before referencing that he had seen a stat that he had run around 7,000 more miles in the NBA than Vince Carter, who is around eight years older than him. James has always had a heavy workload, and it doesn’t sound like he expects that to completely change this year, nor does he necessarily want it to.
“I’m born to have workload. That’s who I am, both on and off the floor,” James said.
Will Vogel, a new training staff, the demands of the Lakers’ travel slate and the presence of Davis and shooters on the roster allow James to emphasize the “off the floor” part of that quote? Whether or not they can could prove to be a determining factor in whether all of James’ efforts to increase his sleep and maximize his body during his remaining time with the Lakers pays off in the championship(s) both parties are so desperately seeking.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.