LeBron James sat in the corner closest to the door of the visiting locker room at State Farm Arena, his feet in buckets of ice, as a swarm of reporters with recorders, cell phones and video cameras talked to him about what had just happened on the court.
One question, though, seemed to annoy him more than any other. It’s the question rival scouts and executives have been asking more often as the Lakers continue to run through the NBA without much pushback.
Are they going too hard too soon? Shouldn’t they be resting LeBron James?
“If I’m healthy, I play,” James said after the Lakers’ 101-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. “I mean, that should be the approach. I mean, unless we’re getting to like late in the season and we’ve clinched and we can’t get any better or any worse, it could benefit from that, but why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally.
“I mean, I don’t know how many games I got left in my career. I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game and they’re there to come see me play and if I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation.”
His comments Sunday came after their 24th win of the season, in which his costar, Anthony Davis, turned his ankle late in the game and limped around the court, and no one on the Lakers’ bench flinched.
“He’s said he’s good so we leave him in there,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Doesn’t go any further than that.”
Davis said after the game that adrenaline carried him through the final minutes of the close game and that he’d see how his right ankle fared leading to the Lakers’ game Tuesday in Indiana.
“I just wanted to finish the game,” he said. “Tweaked it a little bit but just tried to play the rest of the game off adrenaline and then attend to it after the game. … [It’s] a little sore, but got a couple days to get it right before Indiana.”
James’ comments also came on the heels of being listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game after injuring his right elbow during a collision with Miami’s Jimmy Butler two nights earlier. Postgame, James scoffed at the notion that what happened against the Heat would be the kind of thing that would cause him to miss a game.
There’s no questioning James’ durability and endurance. If he stays healthy and playing at his current rate of 34.7 minutes a game, James will pass Kobe Bryant to become eighth all-time in regular-season minutes played at some point this season. He’s already the NBA’s all-time leader in playoff minutes.
Before the win against Atlanta, Vogel said James was the one deciding whether he would or wouldn’t play in games this season.
“He knows that we’re open minded and even encouraging him to look for smart opportunities to recharge the batteries. But we’re respecting what he wants to do, and he wants to be in there,” Vogel said of James, who was chosen the NBA’s Western Conference player of the week on Monday. “So, like I said, we’re going to respect that.”
The Lakers’ primary rival in the Western Conference, the Clippers, are very committed to resting players and minimizing their exposure this season. As Kawhi Leonard deals with a knee injury, the Clippers are holding him out of games. The team was conservative with Paul George’s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. And coach Doc Rivers has also said that Lou Williams could be rested as well — he’s missed the last two games with a sore calf.
The Lakers have also said they’re going to be patient with Kyle Kuzma as he recovers from a sprained ankle. Largely, though, their stars have been on the court. Davis has only missed one game, and James has played in all 27.
Even if James doesn’t want to discuss workload, the Lakers are thinking about it. Vogel described his plan as playing James the least amount of time possible while still getting a win.
“And [to] just try to keep a smart number in mind,” he said. “Obviously there are times when we’re going to go over it, but I think if I can get him averaging 34 minutes, I think that would probably be the ideal situation.”
James played 36 minutes and 56 seconds Sunday, the third consecutive game on the Lakers’ current road trip where he’d been on the court either near or over 37 minutes. His 34.7 minutes per game are the lowest of his career.
The Lakers are relying less on James to carry the heaviest loads. Four years ago, James played 40 minutes or more for Cleveland in more than a quarter of the Cavaliers’ games. Three years ago, he did it in nearly 22% of them. Last year in Los Angeles, James played 40 minutes or more eight times (14.5%), and this year, he’s done it only once.
Five seasons ago, when James won a title with the Cavaliers (the same year the Golden State Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games), he played 40 or more minutes in only 10.5% of his games in the regular season.
Trusting James and trying to save him from his competitive desires, especially with the Lakers playing so well, is something Vogel said the Lakers “talk about all the time.”
“Yeah, it’s a fine line and it’s a balance,” Vogel said.
But that line and that balance won’t be affected by rest, not if James is calling the shots and making decisions about when he will and won’t play.
“My obligation is to play, play for my teammates, and if I’m healthy, then I’m going to play,” he repeated. “If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy.
“And it’s just that simple.”
When: 4 p.m. PST, Tuesday
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Update: The Lakers (24-3) continue their five-game trip against the Pacers (18-9), who have won three in a row. Indiana is still without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, who is not expected to return from his torn quad injury until January at the earliest.