LeBron James will not play on Tuesday night when the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Milwaukee Bucks, according to the team. Given that the Lakers are saying James is out with a sore left groin, rather than the infamous “load management” designation, it seems fair to guess that this might be the start of re-establishing an injury that would allow the team to hold James out for the rest of the season.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton says that’s not in the cards... yet:
LeBron not playing tonight. Luke Walton says the team has not discussed shutting him down for the final stretch. Would really be something if the final moment of his first Lakers season was getting blocked by Hezonja at the Garden.— Bill Oram (@billoram) March 19, 2019
Still, given the change in injury distinction James is being held out with, it’s worthing noting that the NBA has increasingly sought to make sure that players aren’t being sat for tanking reasons. This was most notably done in the case of the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis following the trade deadline.
So while we have to take Walton at his word for now, it’s also hard to also not see the Lakers making James’ groin the public reason he’s sitting instead of having him play through it and then saying he’s sitting out to manage his load as much less likely to draw the ire of the league office.
This isn’t to imply that James’ groin isn’t actually sore. James has clearly not been himself ever since he initially returned from his injury several months ago. Yes, his numbers have been solid, but there has been a clear lack of consistent burst that — even when factoring in his advancing age — wasn’t evident earlier in the season. Since returning, James was dominating mostly with his mind, and less with his body.
That’s a good sign for the Lakers that James can continue to be effective even as he ages, but aside from that, there is really nothing the team still needs to see from the superstar this season, and little practical incentive to continue to play him.
Yes, some people are probably buying tickets just to see James, and this sucks for them. Anyone in Milwaukee tonight is missing their only chance to see James in person this season, which is unfortunate, but also not the Lakers’ concern. If you want to feel righteously indignant towards someone about James needing to sit out, blame the NBA’s ridiculous grind of an 82-game schedule that it tries to shoehorn in over such a comparatively short period of time, to the point that even doctors know is an unrealistic way to keep players healthy and rested to give their best.
The problem with such a scheduling reality is that now the Lakers have a much heavier incentive to keep James healthy than they do to play him now that they’re (essentially) eliminated from playoff contention. Every loss substantially increases the Lakers’ odds at a top-four pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and with Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram also done for the year, it’s not even like they can use the argument of trying to develop chemistry for next season (in the event those two players are kept around) as one to keep James on the floor.
So while James has said that it’s been “challenging” to be on a pseudo minutes restriction for the Lakers, or sit out back-to-backs, this is also what’s best for both his and the franchise’s long-term health. If this isn’t the start of a trend, I’m sorry for wasting nearly 600 words on it, but this change does seem to point towards James getting an even earlier start on the refreshing offseason he was already “looking forward to” anyway.