LeBron James is in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by extension, his first campaign in the Western Conference. This change has put him in a position he doesn’t normally find himself in at this point in the season: Desperately fighting for a playoff spot it’s not totally clear the Lakers can earn.
When speaking about that challenge to reporters after the team’s Wednesday practice, James seemed calm, downright unworried in the face of a difficult closing schedule.
His reasoning for his confidence? The extra gear he knows he can raise his game to, even if he’s not used to doing so just yet.
“It’s gonna be a little bit different for me now, knowing the position that we’re in,” James said. “My injury kind of hit our team. Obviously we would’ve loved to have success while I was out, but we didn’t, and this is where we are right now. So I’m gonna be a little bit different a little earlier than I would like to be in previous years.”
But while James might still be able to go up another notch, it’s fair to question whether that’s ultimately the best thing for the Lakers long-term. James is coming off of the first serious injury of his professional career, and while he says he’s feeling better, it would seem wise for the Lakers to make sure they aren’t pushing him too far if they don’t have to.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton seems to agree with that idea.
“We know that we have the best player in the world on our team, but also that it takes a team to win. We expect him to lead us, and we expect the other guys on the team to make plays and help us win games. This league is too tough to do it by yourself,” Walton said.
And while the Lakers do rely an inordinate amount on James’ greatness, they have been less reliant on him than a lot of his past teams. The percentage of the Lakers’ possessions that James ends in a shot, turnover, assist or drawn free throw (his usage rate) is at 30.7 percent, the fifth-lowest rate of his career. That is surely set to rise over the next few weeks as he and the Lakers fight for the postseason, but it’s possible that keeping his usage rate lower until now will help him to find another gear.
The rest of the Lakers, including Josh Hart, know their All-Star teammate can take things up a notch if need be.
“If (LeBron) has to go out and average 40-10-10, a triple-double for the rest of the season, I think he’s capable of doing that,” Hart said.
“The biggest thing is that we can’t be too conservative. We can’t be like ‘okay, we’ve got to save certain things for the playoffs.’ Because right now we’re fighting. Every game is important to get to the playoffs. Every game is the most important game, and we’ve got to keep building.”
Still, Hart acknowledged that the team would prefer to ask for less than James if they can.
“Obviously we would like to kind of limit that, and hopefully save some of that for the playoffs,” Hart said.
But until the playoffs are guaranteed, Hart, James, Walton and everyone else on the Lakers is going to have to raise their performance up a level. If they can’t, they may not have a postseason slot to save their energy for. The Lakers sound reasonably sure that won’t be a problem.
“It’s going to take a full group effort in this final stretch,” Walton said. “We feel confident and believe in the guys that we have.”
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