Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James has played a combined 61,090 combined regular season and playoff minutes, per Basketball-reference.com data. That is just 1,669 total minutes less than Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone and 5,207 minutes less than Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the two gold standards in NBA longevity.
On Tuesday, James will begin his 19th NBA season, coming off of one in which a high right ankle sprain that, combined with forward Anthony Davis’ groin injury, derailed the Lakers’ chance at a second consecutive championship. With the number of minutes James has amassed in his NBA career, and Davis’ injury history, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that health was a substantial reason that the Lakers’ 2020-21 season ended with a first-round exit to the eventual Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns. Maybe the injuries also shouldn’t be a surprise, because the Lakers opened the 2020-21 season only 71 days after winning the 2020 NBA championship in the Orlando bubble.
It’s most likely a combination of both, but the NBA schedule is again doing the Lakers no favors. They were eliminated from the playoffs by the Suns on June 3, in another truncated COVID season. The turnaround to the Oct. 19 season opener is far more reasonable than the previous one, but in a normal season, a June 3 exit would make the Lakers a team coming off a seven-game loss in the conference finals.
Last season, James missed only one game prior to his high ankle sprain, but up to that point he was playing a career low in minutes, 33.4 per game. He told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin on Monday that he is not worried about injuries and that he feels worse when he plays low minutes.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel talked to the media later and said that not only is the goal for James 34 minutes per game, but he also does not want James to play in all 82 regular season games. James knows his body better than anyone and his care of that body is why he has been able to play 61,000-plus career minutes — but it’s time for him not to simply toe the accelerator through the season with that body, but to hit the cruise control button.
James has been known to play at a slow pace in recent years. He resents that fact, but there’s empirical evidence to prove it. Per NBA.com, James played at an average speed 3.58 miles per hour last season, which was the slowest in the league. He is not a slow person and would probably still win 40-yard dash against the majority of the NBA, though I have my doubts on how he would do in the 100 meter these days, but he is instinctively managing the pace at which he plays the game.
Another area where it’s obvious that James is managing his workload is his shot attempts. James has averaged 4.4 3-point attempts per game for his career and through his 2017-18 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers he attempted five or more threes per game twice in a single season, one of them being that last season with the Cavs. In three seasons with the Lakers James has averaged 5.9, 6.3, and 6.3 threes per game.
At the free-throw line James has averaged 7.9 attempts per game for his career. Prior to the 2019-20 season he had averaged less than seven attempts per game for a season three times in his career, and the only time that he averaged less than six was his rookie season. James averaged 5.7 free throw attempts per game in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.
No player in NBA history has been as dominant for as long as James, who turns 37 on Dec. 30. Hell, the overwhelming majority haven’t played nearly as long. James has played 18 seasons and never averaged less than 20 points and 5.9 assists per game. Other than his rookie season, James has never averaged less than 25 points and six assists per game. A subjective argument can be made about who is a better basketball player or who had the highest peak among Jabbar, James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, etc. However, the argument about who had the most productive career is objective. Only Jabbar has played as long as James, and he stopped putting up otherworldly numbers after year 11. In season 18, the 7-foot-2 Jabbar didn’t average 20 points per game. James averaged 25 points and 7.8 assists per game in his 18th season.
But in 2021 James did get hurt, and missed more than 10 games for the second time in three seasons. While those injuries didn’t end the season for James, they did end the season for the Lakers. Now, in year 19, he has to face the reality that if he wants to be the LeBron James that can lead the Lakers to another championship, his fifth, it’s going to take even more from him than what he is already doing and the way to do that is by doing less.
He can take more jumpers, pick his spots on defense, pass earlier, and go to the basket less frequently, but he’s still playing professional basketball and has been doing so for more than 61,000 minutes and will continue that most strenuous of physical activities for the next six to eight months.
James has been described by some as a human calculator on the basketball court. That calculator needs to figure out the simple probability that him taking off 10-15 games this season gives the Lakers the best chance for a healthy James come spring. If his health does not hold up, that means he and the Lakers at best have to hope for a better result from a then-38-year-old James in his then-20th season.