Column: Bench LeBron James now so the Lakers can repeat as champions later
Ask an aging superstar to return to work barely two months after he exhausted himself in leading his team to an NBA championship, and what do you think he will say?
“I was like, ‘Wow,’’’ LeBron James said Monday. “And I said, ‘Oh s—.’”
He’s got that right.
James will be 36 this winter. No player has played more career postseason minutes. Yet no team in the history of professional sports will have a shorter break between seasons than his Lakers, who will take the Staples Center court for their Dec. 22 opener against the Clippers just 71 days after they left the gym near Orlando, Fla.
It’s not enough time. That’s not enough rest. James plays too hard. He gives too much. His body needs a break. He may be a King, but he’s only human, and such an abbreviated break will test the limits of his vulnerability.
It is no secret that James was so powerful through this year’s playoffs because he was coming off the longest vacation of his life. And now he is expected to repeat that after coming off the shortest vacation of his life?
In scrounging for every last TV dollar, the NBA has stacked the deck against its most celebrated player and its most accomplished team by starting the season a month too early. The Lakers need to look out for themselves. They need to take care of their leader. If they want to still be standing in the playoffs, they need a certain someone to sit down now.
Lakers superstar LeBron James spoke Monday on several topics, including his new teammates and repeating as champions, but ‘load management’ was a hot topic.
Bench LeBron James.
Seriously, rest him once a week, maybe for a couple of two-week stretches, play him in maybe three-quarters of the 72 games, call it a sore knee, call it a tweaked hamstring, or just call it what it is.
The Lakers can’t repeat as champions unless James is healthy in the postseason, and they need to do whatever it takes to make that happen. That’s going to take some creativity. That could mean sacrificing January for June.
They can win without homecourt advantage. They can win without a top-four seed. Thanks to Rob Pelinka’s shopping spree, they are loaded enough to win anywhere against anybody.
But they can’t win if James blows out on some meaningless winter night when the league should still be in hiatus. After riding James to their first title together, the Lakers can forge a second title only by treating him in the opposite manner.
Let him ride the pine.
In a videoconference after practice Monday, James looked tired. Peeking out from beneath a black hoodie, he appeared as if he had just climbed out of a boxing ring or a playoff game.
“Physically, right now, I’m sore as hell,” he said.
He didn’t smile. He wasn’t enthusiastic. He still seemed stunned that the season already was starting.
“Just being completely honest, I wasn’t expecting that, because early conversations were going on and I was hearing that there would be kind of a mid-January start and training camp would kind of start after Christmas,” he said. “We would have an opportunity to spend Christmas with our families. So, I had a break planned, a vacation with my family for us to go somewhere, which I haven’t been able to do, obviously, since I’ve been in the league. So, I had to switch up a lot of things.”
So, yeah, he was irked at canceling a family vacation, and who wouldn’t be? But listening to him talk, it ran deeper than that. There was a sense that this player who openly criticized load management last season — he was the anti-Kawhi Leonard — was more willing to embrace it now. And, to be fair, one of the reasons James always insisted on playing was because he didn’t want to deprive the fans. With no fans in the stands for the foreseeable future, his absence won’t matter nearly as much.
“We’re going to be as smart as we can be on . . . making sure that my body, on making sure that I’m ready to go,” James said. “Obviously, every game matters, but we’re competing for something that’s high.”
In other words, it’s all about the playoffs, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there in one piece.
“We don’t ever want to shortchange our stuff,” he said. “For me personally, that’s a fine line with me, but understanding that it’s a shortened season . . . I think it’s 71 days that the offseason is going to be the shortest season for any professional sport ever. We’re very conscientious about what we’re going to do going forward as far as me personally.”
While the NBA’s Player Resting Policy is basically the same this season — knuckles rapped for resting healthy players for high-profile, nationally televised games — there is new pandemic-related language that allows teams to manage their rosters “in a reasonable manner” at the beginning and end of the regular season.
The Lakers need to ignore the whole thing. Pay the fine. Take the punishment. Understand that, maybe for this season only, it will be “reasonable” to bench James anytime, whenever, however, a notion two reasonable minds are at least considering.
As the Lakers shift their focus to the upcoming season, the team tries to adjust to some of the realities associated with playing amid COVID-19.
“We’re both sort of the mind-set, let’s just see how it plays out,” coach Frank Vogel said of James and load management, later adding, “It’s really just going to be a day-to-day approach.”
Vogel stressed that, yes, some days are more important than others. Like, you know, those days in May and June.
“The goal of any year, but I think in particular this year, is to make sure we’re healthy and whole going into the playoffs,” Vogel said. “And that’s not to say we’re going to take the regular season lightly in any way; the guys who are on the floor are going to compete. And we create the identity of playing harder than our opponent every night. But our goal is definitely to make sure that we’re healthy come playoff time, for sure.”
If that is indeed the goal, then the directive regarding LeBron James is clear.
If you want to soar, you have to let him sit.
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