LOS ANGELES — At some point on Wednesday night, as the Lakers were slowly watching their once 34-point lead against the Phoenix Suns dwindle down to single digits, head coach Frank Vogel gave LeBron James a look. Vogel had played James the entire third quarter and was intending to rest him for the fourth, but it was starting to look like he’d need to bring him back in. James instantly knew what the look meant, and told his coach he was prepared for whatever was needed.
“I’m gonna stay ready,” James said on the bench.
The Lakers needed him to, as Vogel was soon forced to sub James and the rest of the Lakers’ starters back in to close out a young Suns team that just wouldn’t go away. The Lakers survived and held on for a 117-107 win, but it was far from the first time this season that Vogel has had to go back to James because the Lakers were struggling without his presence on the floor.
The Lakers have a positive net rating — meaning they outscore their opponents per 100 possessions — with every single player on the bench other than James, who they simply have not been able to survive without. The Lakers are getting outscored by 3 points per 100 possessions when James sits according to NBA.com, a rate that would rank 23rd in the league if prorated over the whole season. On the flip side of things, they outscore teams by 10.3 points per 100 possessions when James plays.
On one level that’s not exactly rocket science — team is better with their star ball-handler on the floor, news at 11 — but it’s also far worse than the Lakers are without Anthony Davis (minutes in which the Lakers still outscore their opposition by 6.3 points per 100 possessions) and reflective of how they simply haven’t been able to find anyone else on their team to capably shoulder the ballhandling load on a consistent basis when James sits.
Or, if one listens to Frank Vogel, it’s not really indicative of anything, and not a reason for concern for the team yet.
“I think that there really hasn’t been a lot of volume of those minutes this season,” Vogel said when asked what the Lakers have to do better without James on the floor. “We’re going to be fine in those situations. I think we have plenty of firepower, plenty of defensive talent to sustain him being out for stretches of games.
“We missed him one game last week and we didn’t play well, but we’re capable of winning games, and winning those stretches.”
That may be true, but the Lakers haven’t done so very often, although to Vogel’s credit they at least haven’t overspent their 35-year-old star trying to avoid that problem. James is playing a career-low 35.1 minutes per game, and the Lakers haven’t overused him while he’s on the floor, as James’ usage rate of 31.5% ranks right around the middle of the pack for his career.
Still, surviving the regular season isn’t the goal here. All that matters is how the Lakers do in the postseason, a time when having James at as close to 100% as possible is most critical. To that end, it would surely help the Lakers keep James even fresher for the playoffs if they could count on the rest of the team to tread water a bit better when he sat, not that those minutes are something that worry him.
“I don’t really think about it. I can’t start thinking about the playoffs while I’m living in the moment,” James said, although he did acknowledge that he’s happy to rest during games if he’s able to.
“If the game... presents an opportunity where I can get some rest, then I’m going to take full advantage of it,” James continued.
On Wednesday night against the Suns that wasn’t possible, and if Lakers don’t find a solution to their point guard problems, that may not change very often this season. That may not raise alarm bells for James and Vogel — or at the very least, not ones they can publicly talk about without admitting a lack of trust in the rest of the roster on some level — but those stretches will be worth monitoring as the season goes along.
Minutes sans their star will matter less when the Lakers get to the playoffs and James will (likely) play more, but there will still be long enough stretches with James on the bench to swing games in the postseason, when every possession counts. For the Lakers’ sake then, and for the sake of keeping James as fresh as possible for those situations, they’re going to have to find some ways of limiting the amount of looks Vogel has to give James on the bench, rousing his star from a rest during games in which he should’ve been done for the night.
Wednesday night was an extreme example of this to be sure, but emblematic of a struggle the Lakers have faced all season. Whether by free agency or trade, they’d be well served to address it before it comes back to bite them against a better team in a game that matters.
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.