While the Lakers have seemingly turned a corner this season amidst their current four-game win streak and dating back to even earlier than the streak, it’s all come with a very noticeable catch. LeBron James’ level of production has reached unforeseen levels since joining the Lakers, but so has his minutes per game.
On the season as a whole, James is averaging 36.9 minutes per game, the most since his 2017-18 season in Cleveland. Since Anthony Davis’ injury that forced the Lakers into a small ball playstyle, James is playing nearly the same amount of minutes, but doing it as a center often against bigger players.
James’ minutes have been a constant source of discussion for years upon years now, but with them increasing to their current level this season, it’s a warranted conversation. Head coach Frank Vogel noted that the Lakers are doing their best to ease the workload on James during practice.
“It’s fine line,” Vogel said after practice on Thursday. “We definitely want to keep it light. We definitely kept it light for him today while trying to make sure that the guys who need their work get their work. Our assistant coaches do a good job with the guys that haven’t been playing, keeping them active, keeping them staying ready, but definitely keeping practices light for this stretch.”
James has always been one that has preferred a certain amount of minutes per game to keep his rhythm night in and night out. Also, though, James is a creature of habit that has long perfected his routine to keep his body performing at a top level.
So, while the Lakers are focused on keeping things light for him in practice, his routine still includes plenty of daily work on non-game days.
“I’m still just sharpening my tools,” James said. “Sharpening my game. I come in before practice and get my work in in the training room, the weight room, and then I get on the court for about 30 minutes before practice starts and I just sharpen every facet of my game that I’m using throughout the game. Whether it’s the pick and roll game that I’m in a lot more now that I’m setting the picks, shooting the threes, being in the low post, so I’m just kind of sharpening my tools. Not doing too much as far as on my legs. I’m trying to stay off my legs as much as I can.
“And that’s practice days, that’s off days, that’s any day. But I’m always still sharpening my game, because I don’t want to get out of rhythm, even when we have two days in between (games)... I want to stay in a good rhythm going into tomorrow night.”
There are some slivers of hope and silver linings that may indicate James isn’t taxing himself quite as much as his minutes played would suggest. For one, his usage rate still remains relatively low. At 30.5%, James’ usage rate is the lowest it’s been with the Lakers and the lowest since 2016-17 in Cleveland.
His usage rate has risen some since his move to the center position but still sits at just 32.4%, marginally above his 31.9% figure last season and far from the highest in his career. There’s also the fact that James’ usage rate will almost certainly go down even further when Anthony Davis returns as well.
Perhaps the reason that should give fans the most optimism though is that James has never shown signs of slipping yet. While the minutes are high right now and he’s being asked to do a lot, it’s situations and circumstances he’s used to throughout his career. And this season nor any previous season has he shown signs of slipping.
Eventually, that day will come when Father Time wins but nothing indicates that time is now as James continues performing at a remarkably high level, leading to his success and the Lakers as a whole.