James could have easily asked Frank Vogel to take the night off, and Vogel likely would have obliged. After all, the Hawks were in in the midst of a three-game losing streak and were tied for the second-worst record in the league. He also had a safety valve in Anthony Davis at his disposal.
But James didn’t ask Vogel for the night off because he doesn’t want to take any nights off, even if he’s earned that right with how well he’s played to start the season. James made his stance on the “load management” trend clear earlier this season, but he elaborated on it after Sunday’s game (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“If I’m healthy, I play ... I mean, that should be the approach. Unless we’re getting late into the season, we’ve clinched and we can’t get any better — or any worse — I could benefit from that. But why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally. I mean, I don’t know how many games I got left in my career. I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game that are there to come see me play — and if I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation. My obligation is to play for my teammates and if I’m healthy, then I’m going to play. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy and it’s just simple.”
The bit where James said that he’d only consider sitting if the Lakers clinched is particularly interesting.
With a 24-3 record, the Lakers could go 26-29 for the remainder of the season and still end the season with 50 wins. The Utah Jazz were the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference with 50 wins last season. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, the Lakers will be playing basketball past April 15.
What James likely meant by “clinched” was “clinched the No. 1 seed,” and not just in the Western Conference.
With the NBA Finals a realistic expectations for this year’s Lakers team, they’ll be looking to have home court advantage, and the best way to do that is by having most wins in the NBA at the end of the year. They’ll have a change to gain ground in that regard on Thursday, when they visit the Milwaukee Bucks — the team they’re tied with for the best record in the league. Obviously there will be 53 more games for both teams to play after that, but every game counts in the race for the top spot.
As long as James is healthy, it sounds like he’ll be on the court and leading the Lakers every step of the way.