LeBron James has been listed with a left ankle sprain on the last 18 pre-game injury reports that the Lakers have released heading into their 21st game of the season against the Boston Celtics on Saturday. In the two games prior to that streak, he was listed with a sore left ankle. The only game he has not appeared on the injury report for was the team’s first game of the season against the LA Clippers.
Suffice to say, James’ left ankle has been nagging him at least a little bit. Despite that, he still has yet to miss a game, but Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said that doing so is an option if the ankle starts to bother James more.
“We talked about that. If it’s necessary we’ll do that. He hasn’t felt like it’s necessary,” Vogel said on Thursday, right before James suited up once again despite being listed as questionable to play.
“(He) still has some soreness in it from time to time. He’s playing on it every day, but it’s nothing of major concern.”
James’ availability has stood in start contrast to the way the Lakers have handled his co-star, Anthony Davis, who has only played in both ends of one of their four back-to-backs once so far — and sat one game apiece in the other three — as the team takes an extremely cautious approach with his health. But we also need to remember that James and Davis are different players, and that while James is older, Davis’ lankier body type and constant collisions with the floor have made him much more injury prone throughout his career. He’s also coming off of a still-undisclosed ankle injury in the NBA Finals, a series (and playoff run) that James made it through relatively healthy. James has also shown to be much more talented at in-game load management than Davis is.
There is also the reality that no one is making James play, or forcing Davis to sit. In the end, those two guys — especially James — have a lot of say in what they do and don’t do with this organization. Every time he’s asked about James’ health and/or the possibility of him sitting out, Vogel brings up the discussions that he, James, the front office and medical staff have as they collaborate on what the best decision is. Given that James is the de-facto highest-ranking member of that group, it’s not that outlandish to assume that the final decision on most of this stuff falls to him.
And to hear him tell it, he’s just fine.
“I don’t get tired. I don’t feel tired. I get my sleep. I get my rest. I have a lot of energy. I don’t get tired,” James said after playing more than 35 minutes for the fifth time in six games, a threshold he cleared just three times in the 14 games prior.
But despite that upward trend, the Lakers are still doing better at keeping James’ usage down than any of his prior teams. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career for the third consecutive season, so even if he’s suiting up every night, between getting fewer minutes and the Lakers almost never practicing, the organization is doing its part to keep his mileage down during this strange season. He may not be cherrypicking every single possession like he told his friend Barack Obama he would, but he is still doing a bit less than normal.
And the real reason that the Lakers are keeping James on the injury report, more than likely, is just so that he can sit out if he wants to. Vogel said weeks ago that the team would keep listing James on the injury report until he had zero soreness in his ankle, and my theory on why they’re doing so remains the same now as it was then:
Another possible reason for the Lakers doing so? The NBA has begun to crack down on teams’ inconsistent injury reporting over the last few years, culminating in the league fining then-Clippers head coach Doc Rivers $50,000 for saying that Kawhi Leonard “feels great” while the team listed him on the injury report.
Since then, teams around the league have been a lot more consistent on making sure that their injury reporting is thorough, transparent and consistent. The Lakers listing James with this also allows them to more easily sit him for pseudo load management in the future, because they can document that he’s been dealing with an injury and that’s why he’s sitting out, rather than the rest just being an out-of-the-blue thing.
So yes, LeBron James is 36, and yes, he’s in year 18. But as much as it might seem like he’s pushing full steam ahead by playing every night, the Lakers do appear to be load managing him at least as well — and probably better — than any team ever has. And even he seems to get that some rest may be necessary at some point.
For a voracious competitor as used to having his fingerprints on everything as James, it’s surely not an easy balancing act, but the organization at least appears to have contingency plans in place to hit the emergency breaks and keep James fresh if necessary. Just don’t expect him to use them if he still feels relatively healthy, and like he can still chase one more MVP.