LeBron James is universally lauded in the NBA not just because of his talent and skill level, but also his ability to lead teams. On a Laker roster that lacked returning veterans, James’ leadership was supposed to be incredibly valuable for a team looking to get back to the playoffs.
Unfortunately for James, and for the Lakers, he suffered the first serious injury of his NBA career and ended up missing 27 games, including 17 consecutive contests, during which the team cratered and essentially fell out of postseason contention.
Rajon Rondo, another veteran signed in part for his leadership ability last offseason, also missed 31 games this season. His injuries overlapped with James’, which allowed the pair to recuperate together, but also left the Lakers without two of their most vocal players on the floor. In an interview with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, Rondo elaborated on what it was like for he and James to miss so much time:
Injuries undermined whatever leadership the Lakers had. Along with James’ absence, Rondo, thanks to two separate hand injuries, missed 31 games.
“We were on the training table a lot together,” Rondo says. “Seeing him go through that, never been injured, that was obviously tough dealing with. A guy like that, when you have to sit still, that changes a lot of things: your perspective, not trusting [your body] again, trying to get back. I’m sure he went through a whole bunch of that.”
As inspiring as it was to watch James attack the rehab process, the time spent recovering was time that James couldn’t be with the team. Rondo noted that James’ leadership wasn’t as effective as a result when the superstar was hurt because he couldn’t lead by example:
It’s also tough to lead from the training table.
“It’s different between being a player and a hurt player,” Rondo says. “You’re not playing, so [if you] judge everyone else ... people may not be as receptive. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you sound like a coach now; you don’t understand.’ LeBron misses games and doesn’t travel, I don’t travel—all that time away from the team, you can’t come together as quick as you want. We couldn’t get the chemistry together.”
James himself noted towards the end of the season that his injury was the “worst thing” for the team for this very reason. He came into Los Angeles with a plan for how to lead a relatively young team, and his absence was a challenge that the Lakers could not collectively overcome.
There are many reasons to hope for a healthier year for James in 2019-20; having his presence on the floor to help keep the Lakers together is yet another one to add to the list.