EL SEGUNDO, Calif — As the Los Angeles Lakers were in the midst of trying to secure a tight win against the Phoenix Suns last week, head coach Frank Vogel did something he’s often tried to do in fourth quarters this season: Get LeBron James a rest.
To do achieve this goal, he told Alex Caruso to go wait at the scorer’s table to sub in for James, but quickly realized he had made a mistake.
“He told Alex to go back to the bench,” Vogel recalled with a laugh earlier this week. “Yelled out ‘what are you doing over there at the scorer’s table? Go back to the bench. What’s the matter with you?’”
And so James stayed in the game, something Vogel was just fine with, and shared as an example of how he and James are collaborating on the stars’ minutes this season.
“He knows I prefer to get him a rest in the fourth quarter, and there are going to be some games... where I tell him ‘I want to get you a minute or two, but I’m going to follow your lead.’ And if he wants to stay in, we’ll keep him in,” Vogel said.
So far the dynamic is mostly working, as while James is tied with Anthony Davis for the most overall minutes per game on the Lakers (34.7), that total would be a career-low for James, who Vogel very much wants to keep fresh for the postseason, even if James says he’s ready to play more minutes if Vogel needs him to.
“I’m with whatever, honestly. It doesn’t matter for me. I train my body. I train my mind to be able to push the limit at any time,” James said. “I go into a game expecting to have to play big minutes. Obviously I know that’s not going to be the case, but that’s just how I prep my mind and my body so that we’re good for whatever.”
James has mostly been saving his pushes for late in the game so far, as he’s leading the Lakers in fourth quarter minutes per game (9.3), but Vogel has come up with a strategy that has thus far allowed James to play the types of closing minutes he wants to, while still keeping his overall minutes low.
“I’ll follow his lead if he’s feeling fresh. If he says he’s feeling great, then what I like to try to do is to frontload that rest in the first half, so we have that luxury going into the second half,” Vogel said.
“It’s been a good balance of when I’m on the floor with AD, when I’m not on the floor with AD,” added James at shootaround on Tuesday morning. “We’ve been able to keep the team in the right direction and playing winning basketball.”
But like all NBA head coaches, Vogel has the difficult and unenviable task of trying to win games while also thinking a little bit about the team’s long-term goals. That’s a balance that’s not always easy to strike when resting a player that’s playing as well as James is, because while he may be turning 35 next month, he’s also playing at just about as high of a level as he ever has, averaging a near-triple-double of 25 points, 11.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 49% from the field.
The Lakers have also been a staggering 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when James plays than they are when he sits, and are never worse than when he’s off the floor. Some coaches — especially ones with job security that has been speculated about as much as Vogel’s was over the summer — would be tempted to lean on their star player as much as possible when the team so clearly orbits around that star’s production, but Vogel has so far managed to juggle getting wins now, while also preserving James for future battles when Vogel knows they’ll need him more.
“I have a good mindset for balance,” Vogel said. “You know you can use him at your disposal, and he’s gonna be effective and he’s gonna dominate the game the way he’s dominating. But we’re still gonna have a big picture mindset with everything that he’s doing.”
So far, Vogel has managed to do just that. Even if James is occasionally sending Alex Caruso back to the bench as they do it.
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.