LeBron James has maintained remarkable health for a 35-year-old this season. After missing a career-high 27 games during the 2018-19 campaign, James has been absent only twice this season, and his presence has gone a long way for the Lakers in building a cushion in the standings. At 44-12, they lead the Western Conference by five full games. The gap between them and the No. 2 seeded Denver Nuggets is the same as the gap between those Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks, currently slated for No. 7. Barring an absolute catastrophe, the Lakers will have homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
Having that assurance in February affords the Lakers uncommon flexibility in managing its roster from this point. On Wednesday, Lakers coach Frank Vogel announced that James will miss Thursday’s game against the Golden State Warriors with what he described as left groin soreness. The left groin is a problem area for James, and it was the catalyst for his 27 missed games last season. But James scored 40 points on Tuesday. If this were the postseason, odds are, he’d be playing.
But with such an enormous cushion, the Lakers can afford to be cautious during the stretch run, and if there was ever a player to take that approach with it is LeBron James. Thursday’s game will have little bearing on the ultimate fate of the Lakers, so using it as an opportunity to rest James, no matter how injured he is, is sensible. He’s 35-years-old and measuring stick matchups with the Clippers and Bucks loom next week. Keeping him healthy for those games and beyond is absolutely essential.
They need him so much, in fact, that sitting him out for a few extra games here and there could actually be enormously beneficial for the rest of the team. When James is on the floor, the Lakers are a championship-caliber team, outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, though, they have been outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions. That gap could get quite a bit bigger in the postseason, where James teams notoriously struggle on the bench. In the 2017 NBA Finals, for instance, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a net rating of minus-0.5 points with James on the floor… but minus-38.8 with him off of it. Having LeBron James makes teams dependent on LeBron James.
The best antidote to that might be resting him when possible as the regular season winds down. Doing so gives the Lakers a commodity few teams possess at this point in the season: time. They’ll have hundreds of minutes in the next six weeks to experiment with lineups not featuring James in the hopes of finding one that will work in the postseason. And if they can help maintain the health and fitness of a 35-year-old in the process? Then all the better.
This is essentially the tactic that the Clippers have employed all season. While injury preservation is a greater priority for them in light of the lingering issues Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have endured in recent years, the fringe benefit of missing their stars as often as they have is that the Clippers have been able to tinker with their lineups to a rather extreme degree. The Clippers have not used a single five-man group more than 215 total minutes, which ranks 28th among all lineups league-wide, but that group includes a player in Moe Harkless who is no longer on the roster. No five-man unit featuring five current Clippers has played more than 100 total minutes.
Obviously, that creates the opposite predicament for the Clippers. They’ll need to spend the stretch run finding cohesion with a few groups. But they have tape on so many different ones that they already have a general sense of what will work and what won’t. When it comes to LeBron’s bench minutes, the Lakers largely don’t.
In that sense, the remainder of the regular season will likely see a shift for each Los Angeles team towards the strategy employed by the other. The Lakers will likely rest more. The Clippers, if possible, would probably prefer to do so a bit less. Striking the balance will be the key for both teams as they barrel towards an inevitable playoff showdown.