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Lakers really need LeBron James right now. Can he still deliver?

LeBron Jamesof the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after scoring a basket.
Ten days before his 37th birthday, LeBron James is averaging 37.2 minutes per game — 3.8 more minutes than he did last season.
( Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

It’s not hard to imagine LeBron James’ thinking as he huddled with his confidants this past summer, working with (or as) the Lakers’ front office in putting together the team he would try to win another title with.

He needed the Lakers to be more offensively dynamic so he sought out shooters, old friends like Carmelo Anthony who could catch a cross-court dart, rise and fire. He knew they’d need to be versatile so veteran Trevor Ariza became a logical choice.

But so many of those decisions had to have been with an eye on the playoffs — the only place where the results truly matter. Everything else would be about moving forward at a consistent pace, waiting for the right time to turn over the ignition and jet toward the finish line.

In the meantime, he had to have thought, All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis could do more of the work, lessen some of his burden and keep the Lakers in good position until the time became most critical.

But now past the 30-game threshold this season, it’s clear that this plan was full of miscalculations, that Westbrook and Davis were either not enough together or not enough as a pair with the surrounding players.

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The Lakers don’t normally count moral victories. But with so many COVID issues and Anthony Davis’ injury, playing the Bulls close had a silver lining.

Nope, the Lakers need a lot from James. They need it now. And, for the first time in more than a generation, it might be more than he can deliver.

He was already doing a ton before Sunday, when the Lakers began a month-long stretch with Davis sidelined because of a sprained ligament in his left knee.

Ten days before his 37th birthday, James is averaging 37.2 minutes per game — 3.8 more minutes than he did last season. It’s the single biggest year-to-year jump in minutes played for James in his 19-year career.

They’re 11-8 with James on the floor this season, but they needed him to play more than 40 minutes in three of those wins, and he nearly played 50 in a triple-overtime loss to Sacramento.

And now with Davis out, it’s reasonable to expect the Lakers to lean further into lineups with James playing center, minutes that certainly look more physically demanding on the defensive end.

Ariza, who played Sunday for the first time this season following ankle surgery, can certainly help mitigate some of the defensive pressure the Lakers have to deal with now that Davis is out. He said James playing center isn’t something he’s worried about.

“I think that would be an advantage. He’s just as big, just as strong,” Ariza said. “He’s used to playing physical, playing through contact. So I think it would be a pretty easy adjustment for him. He’s a big student of the game. Very smart individual, smart player. So I don’t think it would be much of a challenge for him to convert to doing the things that he was doing [Sunday].”

Amid a strange season defined by injuries and players going in and out of COVID protocol, the Lakers are striving to get their season on track.

Sure enough against the Bulls, James had 14 rebounds — twice as many as starting center DeAndre Jordan, who played half as many minutes as James. And when the Lakers struggled to box out in the fourth quarter, one of the big reasons they were unable to win, James was glaring at whoever missed the assignment.

For stretches in the second and third quarters, the Lakers seemed to settle into a rhythm, and James was in the middle for a lot of those stretches.

“What the team really wrapped their mind around was how much we need to move the ball to be a good-rhythm offensive basketball team. Because you don’t have AD to book in 22 to 24, maybe 30 on some nights — you can’t book that,” acting head coach David Fizdale said. “So you have to rely on the guy next to you to help you. Obviously [Westbrook] and Bron can still go do it, Carmelo against certain matchups can still go do it, but the ball movement … I thought they really bought into that as a key to our game.”

Still, there’s a part of this that feels like it’ll simply be on Westbrook and James to just be better, to do more and lift their team through a difficult stretch.

“I mean, instinctively, that’s what you tell yourself,” Westbrook said. “But also, you’ve got to read the game because the game will tell you always what to do — whether it’s scoring more, passing more, rebounding more whatever that may be. But AD’s obviously a huge part of our team. And we’ve got to figure out how to play without him for some time. Something that we’ve got to adjust to and something we can figure out.”

It’s just hard to see how the answer involved James doing less and relying on others more, especially with the roster dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that has made the on-court holes even more gaping.

Against one of the lighter schedules in the NBA, the Lakers have needed James to play more than he has in the late stages of his prime. They’ve needed him to bang with opposing 7-footers.

And it’s gotten them here — barely above .500.

With the schedule about to turn, starting Tuesday against Phoenix, and with Davis trying to recover, the challenge is huge. And while betting against James has cost people money for a long time, the smart money might finally be shifting.

LAKERS UP NEXT
VS. PHOENIX

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Staples Center
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 1110, 1330.
Update: The Suns (24-5) come to town having already proved that last season’s trip to the NBA Finals was no fluke. Led by Chris Paul, Phoenix got Devin Booker back from a hamstring injury Sunday. The Lakers, on the other hand, can’t be sure of who is going to be on the court, the team still dealing with a deluge of players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. After losing to Minnesota and Chicago, the Lakers need to win to avoid their second three-game losing streak of the season.


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