In 2012-13, as the Los Angeles Lakers made a late-season playoff push and Kobe Bryant did something remarkable, on-brand, and unheard of in the modern NBA.
In his 17th season, a 34-year-old Bryant was playing some of the best hoops of his career. Through the first 71 games, he was averaging 27.2 points on 47 percent shooting from the field. He was producing one of his best dunking seasons since his afro-salad days.
During a seven-game stretch from Mar. 30 through Apr. 12, Bryant averaged a staggering 45.5 minutes per game, including four games of over 47 minutes. The Lakers won six of those seven contests, which was good enough to secure a playoff berth.
At the time, folks in Lakerland voiced concerns over Bryant’s minute-load, but no one in the organization had the pedigree to reel in the Mamba.
“There’s no secret, there’s no magic formula,” Bryant said at the time, via SI. “I watch what I eat and I train my ass off. I’m in the type of condition right now that a lot of my predecessors at this age probably couldn’t be in.”
The apprehensions were soon validated. With two games remaining in the season, Bryant’s Achilles gave out in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors. He shot two free throws, walked off the court, and his career was never the same.
The 2020-21 Lakers don’t want to make the same mistake with their active legend.
LeBron James played 43 minutes in Monday’s overtime loss to the Washington Wizards at Staples Center, the team’s third consecutive defeat. Through 11 games this February — the dog days of a condensed season, following an abbreviated off-season — the 36-year old has averaged 38.2 MPG, which is the most in the NBA.
L.A. won their first six games of the month in unimpressive fashion, but have since lost four of their past five.
Before February, James averaged 33.3 MPG, which would be the lowest mark of his career. Overall, James has played 1,120 total minutes in 2020-21, the third-most in basketball.
Of course, these recent developments stem from the losing and the minutes are consequences of Anthony Davis’ calf strain. The All-Star big has missed the past four games and will be out for at least three more weeks. The absence of key ball-handler Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocols) has only heightened James’ mid-season portfolio.
“He’s a workhorse,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said about James following Monday’s loss. “He’s doing everything he can for us.”
James claims that he “doesn’t get tired,” and, in his defense, he physically resembles the closest thing we have to a real-life physical superhero. So did Kobe.
And, like the Mamba, James’ go-to mindset isn’t too cower to the increased workload. Instead, his natural inclination is to embrace the challenge.
“Now it’s time for me to adjust again and see ways I can be even more effective to help this team win ballgames because that is the spot that we’re in,” James said on Saturday. “We’re in the winning business, and I’ve always been a winner.”
In his post-game remarks on Monday, James seemed noticeably salty about being peppered with rest-related questions.
“I’ve never talked about it. I don’t talk about it. I don’t believe in it. We all need more rest, shit,” James said. “This is a fast turnaround from last season and we all wish we could have more rest. But I’m here to work, I’m here to punch my clock in and be available to my teammates and if I’m hurt or if I’m not feeling well then we can look at it then.”
The rest narrative didn’t start after Davis got hurt. In fact, nobody, including Danny Green, would have been surprised had the 2020 Finals MVP took it easy through the first half of the season. Instead, he’s played every game.
“I’ve been hearing it for five, six, seven years now and I’m still going strong,” James reminded the public. “I don’t need a handout. I’m not looking for a handout. My job is to go out when I’m available when I’m healthy to go out and play.”
The Lakers don’t have to look as far back as 2013 for instruction. Davis wasn’t playing heavy minutes when his calf gave out (32.8 MPG), but the team certainly could have taken a more cautious approach with their star as he dealt with nagging soreness around his Achilles.
For a million-reasons-per-year, far be it from me to tell the five-time champion what is best for his body. James wants another MVP, and he takes pride in putting the team on his back. That’s a cause and effect of greatness. At this stage of his career and his GOAT chase, though, he would surely agree that titles are paramount.
But, the Lakers are on the record admitting they aren’t prioritizing seeding or home-court advantage, as long as they have James (and fans are limited). Vogel has repeatedly insisted that he wants to be careful with LeBron’s load, but not while a game is hanging in the balance.
“We’ve considered that all season long with him. And we’ll make those decisions on a game-by-game basis,” Vogel said following Monday’s loss.
Inconveniently, the Lakers have found themselves in nail-biters all month. With or without Davis, the Lakers have struggled mightily when James is on the bench.
In the Lakers’ last two losses, James has started to run out of gas. Against Washington, he dropped 31 points and 13 assists but also had eight turnovers, missed eight of 10 attempts from downtown, and shorted a crucial free throw with 9.5 seconds. (James is shooting 24.% from deep in February after a career-best start to the season.)
James scored four points in the second half of the Lakers’ 96-94 loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday. He was consistently beaten off the dribble by Kelly Olynyk, and he missed seven of his nine shot attempts over the final two quarters, including a late-game 3 off the side of the backboard.
“I’m not pushing myself … I’m going out and playing the game,” James said. “I’m doing my job and I’m trying to do it at a high level, but that’s been a narrative around the league. I have never asked for time off or time throughout the season.”
It won’t get easier. The Lakers play every other day until the All-Star break, primarily against Western Conference playoff teams. L.A. will face the red-hot Utah Jazz on the road on Wednesday, then host matchups against the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Phoenix Suns. Their only solace will come when they visit the Sacramento Kings which will close out the first half.
“You try to find some time in-between time to get some rest as much as you can when we’re not playing,” he said. “I really don’t have too much of a comment about the All-Star break. You guys know how I feel about that. … But we’ll have a couple of days after we play our last game. … So, I’ll get an opportunity to rest a little bit.”
LeBron’s current string of taxing nights at the office is not ideal for the Lakers. The most prudent move that the team could make is to shut him down through the break, or at least give him a game off. After all: there are far fewer fans to disappoint.
But, just like Kobe Bryant in 2013, LeBron James is playing at an MVP-caliber level in his mid-30s and holds powerful sway within the Lakers organization. Nobody can truly manage the load except the King himself.
Hopefully, he’ll prove the doubters and common conceptions about the human body will be wrong once again.