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LeBron James played just 29 minutes against the Nuggets, and ‘in all likelihood’ that trend will continue

LeBron James isn’t just the NBA’s oldest player. Historically speaking, he’s also been among its busiest. In 20 NBA seasons, he has averaged 38.1 minutes per game, and even as a 38-year-old last season, he still managed to tie for the 19th most minutes per game in the league at 35.5. James likes to control every element of a basketball game. He can’t do that from the bench.

He had little choice on Tuesday as his Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets in their season opener. James played just 29 minutes in the defeat, and even though the Lakers won those minutes by seven points, they were outscored by 19 in the 19 minutes he sat out. In the past, James spending that much time on the bench would have been unthinkable. In 55 games last season, James played fewer than 29 minutes only once. That was in a February game against the Warriors in which he was listed as day-to-day on the injury report due to a hand injury. He still managed to play more than 26 minutes.

So will this become a trend? “We’ll see,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the game. “In all likelihood, yes.” James essentially confirmed it himself. “I guess there’s a system in place and I’m going to follow it,” the four-time MVP said at his post-game media availability. He confirmed afterward that he was on board with the decision, but in the past, he has pushed back relentlessly against the idea that he needs to play less as he ages.

“I think this whole narrative of ‘LeBron needs more rest’ or I should take more rest or I should take time here, it’s become a lot bigger than what it actually is,” James told reporters after a 2021 loss to the Washington Wizards. “I’ve never talked about it, I don’t talk about it, I don’t believe in it. We all need more rest, s—.” He backed up that sentiment in October of that year. “I don’t play the game thinking about injuries,” James said before doubling down. “And I also feel worse when I play low minutes.”

Whether or not the statistics back up that notion isn’t really knowable. James almost never plays limited minutes, and when he does, it’s usually either because of an injury or a blowout. James did play very well against Denver, though, and did so in ways that suggested that his extra rest was beneficial. James took 16 shots, and not only were more than half of them in the restricted area, he made all nine of his attempts there. 

James frequently needed to settle for jump shots last season because his immense workload made preserving the energy needed to attack the basket far more difficult. This was particularly problematic because James rarely actually made those shots. He hit just 36.4% of his mid-range looks last season and 32.1% of his 3-pointers. The Lakers need to keep James fresh if they’re going to get the best version of him.

They also need to keep him healthy. James missed 27 games last season, but perhaps more importantly, he was visibly hampered when he did manage to play in the postseason. His drives per game declined to a meager 8.3 in the 2023 postseason. That number might not be abnormal, but remember, James averaged over 14 of them during the 2020 championship season. James had to pick his spots more carefully last postseason, and the Lakers suffered for it.

In theory, limiting LeBron’s minutes will not only allow him to play in more games but allow him to make better use of the minutes he actually does play. Of course, it doesn’t matter how healthy James is in the playoffs if the Lakers don’t win enough to actually get there. That’s where the rest of the roster comes in. Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Gabe Vincent were supposed to give the Lakers enough ball-handling to survive these extended stretches without James. They didn’t on Tuesday.

They’ll almost certainly improve as the season progresses. Russell, for all of his flaws, is a valuable innings eater. Reaves proved himself as a secondary creator last postseason, and Vincent just started for a finalist. The Lakers were built with this plan in mind. But if they can’t execute it, another deep playoff run is going to be a whole lot harder this time around.

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