The Los Angeles Lakers made the decision that they will have to make multiple times this season for a chance at their second NBA championship in three seasons: Sitting LeBron James.
On Thursday he missed his second consecutive game with an abdominal injury that will keep him out for at least one week, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
This season is James’ 19th season in the NBA and he’s tallied more than 61,000 total minutes in his career. There was no way he could be on the court for all 82 regular-season games and be able to play like one of the best players in the NBA when the Lakers really need him in the playoffs. Keeping James off the court at times this season will cost the Lakers some regular-season victories but for them to be competitive enough to, unlike last season, secure a decent playoff seed, they can’t continue to give away games to teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder have won only two games this season, both against the Lakers, sans James. The first victory came at home when the Thunder came back from a 72-52 deficit near the end of the first half, and won by eight points. In the Thunder’s Thursday victory at Staples Center, the Lakers did not trail at any point in the game until there was just under five-and-a-half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Lakers ended up losing 107-104 to drop to 5-4 on the season.
While resting James is the smart move for the Lakers, they won’t be able to reap the benefits come playoff time if they continue to blow leads to bad teams. If the Lakers held on to their leads against the Thunder, they would have a 7-2 record and be sitting in third place in the Western Conference. But at 5-4, they’re a half game out of the play-in tournament. While the standings aren’t hugely important with 73 games left to play in the season, those two losses can absolutely hurt the Lakers at the end of the season in April.
Last season, the Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Dallas Mavericks ended the season with the exact same record. However, the Lakers ended up with the lowest seed of the group and had to compete in the play-in tournament. Giving away winnable games without James in the lineup will have the Lakers in this same scenario come the 2022 playoffs. Even if the Lakers again make it out of the play-in tournament, their first-round series will again be against one of the best teams in the Western Conference and that will leave no room for error.
The Lakers were up 2-1 against the eventual Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs and then forward Anthony Davis injured his groin. If the Lakers were the sixth seed last season, they would’ve played against the Denver Nuggets who had lost guard Jamal Murray to an ACL injury. The Lakers could’ve won that series without Davis on the court for every game and he would’ve had time to heal before playing the Suns in the second round. That is the difference that one or two regular-season games make in the playoffs.
The Lakers have the oldest roster in the NBA. They’re going to have to manage minutes for so many players that a No. 1 overall seed is likely not going to happen, but if they want a chance at a second championship in three seasons they can’t go into the playoffs again with a low seed. This old roster with James, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, and Carmelo Anthony will not fare any better than last season’s Lakers did against a top team in the first round.
The only way for the Lakers to avoid that scenario is to win as many games as possible in the regular season, and that means not blowing leads to lottery teams like the Thunder twice in the first 20 days of the season. With those two losses, the Lakers have put themselves in a hole and the rest of the season is going to be a fight just like last year’s first-round series. They’re going to need wins against some of the better teams in the NBA, and they’re going to have to get some of those wins without one of their best players.