LeBron James, at the age of 36, should probably not be leading the NBA in minutes. The good news is that — despite panicked tweets from Lakers fans that might have made you think otherwise — he is not.
James actually only ranks 21st in the NBA in minutes per game with 34.5, which is (narrowly) the lowest average of his career (he played 34.6 last season). However, the idea that the Lakers should use James at least slightly less isn’t a crazy one. Over the last 15 games, he’s played 36.3 minutes per game, but that number also makes it clear that the idea that he’s played some unsustainable amount since Davis went down is off. Over the seven games since Davis has been out, James has actually played a tad fewer minutes (34.2) than his season average.
Those are at least at a couple of reasons not to have too much anxiety over the veteran star, although his head coach, Frank Vogel, still prefers the nights when they can get James rest and win games.
“You sleep better at night, that’s for sure,” Vogel said with a laugh after James played just 24 minutes in the Lakers’ most recent win over the Golden State Warriors.
James says he’s sleeping regardless. He has continually insisted that he’s not tired, and bristled at the concept of load management. Ironically, this comes on the heels of a training camp in which he seemed more open to the idea of nights off than ever before, but whether it’s sensing a chance to win one more MVP or letting his day-to-day competitiveness take over, James has played in every single game for the Lakers. Still, even he had to admit he enjoyed the extra rest he got against the Warriors while his teammates finished out a win.
“We’ve played a lot of minutes because of how many overtime games we’ve played this year, but you take advantage when you can. You prepare as if you’ve got to play 48, and then you let the game dictate the game,” James said. “Tonight it was not needed, it was half of 48 for myself, and I’ll take it.”
But minute counts aren’t the only way to judge usage. James also ranks 10th in the league in usage rate — the percentage of possessions that end in him shooting, assisting a teammate, turning the ball over or drawing a foul while he’s on the floor — with 31%. But the Lakers have also looked to ease his burden there, lessening his on-court load at the same time they’re trying to maximize his time off of it. Over the seven games since Davis went down, James has only seen a slight nudge up to a 32% usage rate, meaning that the remaining possessions that would have gone to Davis are mostly being redistributed to other Lakers.
One way the Lakers have done so is that, starting in their loss to the Utah Jazz, they’ve begun to try and make sure James is on the floor with another playmaker more often than not. And over the last two games since Dennis Schröder returned, James has played 17.8 minutes per game with backup point guard Alex Caruso on the floor with him (the most of any two-man duo on the Lakers) and 16.7 with Schröder, meaning he has played nearly every single second he’s on the court with another player to handle some of the ball-handling load. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he’s looked as springy as he has in weeks — especially on defense — as a result.
“That’s something we’re trying to get accomplished, where LeBron doesn’t have to do as much within his minutes,” Vogel said. “To have Alex and Dennis initiating the offense and just lightening that load a little bit, and I thought it paid dividends.”
The Lakers are never going to be able to just put LeBron in a cryogenic chamber until the playoffs, as tempting as the idea might be. But there is data to suggest that for all the panic about his minutes and the load he’s carrying, they’re coming up with ways to make sure he’s not going overboard. It’s a balancing act as important as any job Vogel has as a coach, and while it would be naive to think he can just tell a star that visibly has the freedom to check himself in and out of games to just play less minutes — after all, I don’t get to tell my boss how many hours he’s going to work each day, and you don’t either — he can find strategies like playing other point guards with him to at least lessen James’ burden while he’s out there.
“We want to make sure that we’re managing him the best we can. But he wants to be in there, and you respect that about him, so you’ve just got to make sure that as the games go by, you try to stay away from overtime,” Vogel said after the win against the Warriors, smiling at his own half-joke. “That’s been the biggest problem for us, is all the overtime games that we’ve had.
“But you welcome nights like this where you can keep those minutes low.”
And for as much as Vogel jokes to try and deflect while presenting a veneer of calm, there are signs that monitoring James’ usage is a real priority for him, and something he thinks about quite a bit. During an entirely unrelated question about staying the course during their four-game losing streak last week, Vogel again mentioned that “it was great to see LeBron be able to take the fourth quarter off and get some rest.”
Maybe as a result, now Vogel can get some sleep, too.