When LeBron James was talking last week about not knowing how many years he had left and how many kids would get to watch him play going forward, those familiar with his thinking over the past few years undoubtedly couldn’t believe their ears.
James, who helped usher in this era of “load management” after all the playoff games started piling up during a remarkable run that saw him reach the NBA Finals in every season from 2011-18, was now talking about playing as often as possible. Bring on the back-to-backs.
“Why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me,” James answered when asked specifically about taking some nights off. “I don’t know how many games I have left in my career.”
James has intimated before that he’d love to still be active when his son Bronny, currently a 15-year-old freshman at L.A.’s Sierra Canyon High School, is ready to enter the league. That means the soon-to-be 35-year-old would love to still be in the NBA at 40. He has prioritized taking care of his body as he’s gotten older and figured to coast down the stretch, which is one reason that win totals were set so low for the league’s championship co-favorite.
While the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook tipped the season off with the Lakers as a 4-1 choice to win the title, their win total was set at 48.5, bet down from the 49.5 that the number opened at. It was a figure barely higher than last season, when James didn’t have Anthony Davis alongside him.
Books and smart NBA bettors fully expected that both stars will prioritize being ready for the playoffs over winning a Pacific Division title or capturing 50 wins. Given the low bar, riding the ‘over’ on the Lakers looked like a sucker’s bet.
So here we are, entering Christmas week, and even after losing Sunday’s home date against the Nuggets, the Purple and Gold had won 24 of their first 30 games. Projecting that out over a full schedule, L.A. is on track for 61 wins.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this column. Following James’ comments, which were made in Atlanta on Dec. 15 following a 101-96 win over the Hawks, L.A. suffered through its first three-game losing streak of the season. The skid will follow it into Wednesday’s holiday showdown with the Clippers, which James is questionable to suit up for since he suffered a thoracic muscle strain. He’s been dealing with an elbow issue and now discomfort around his ribs.
The word is that he’s not going to sit on Christmas and ruin any kids’ holidays, but the fact he played through the issue in a 111-104 loss at Milwaukee after originally feeling the pain on Dec. 17 in Indiana suggests that while his heart is in the right place, he isn’t thinking.
Outside of those with a vested interest in the Lakers’ win total creeping into the 50’s, no one wants to see a compromised James gutting it out through games for the sake of not disappointing fans. We’re not trying to see him spend the beginning of the next decade unable to move with the ease and limber grace we’ve come to expect.
In a season where a matchup with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the Western Conference finals appears inevitable, there’s no reason for James to be a hero. After all, few remember that the Lakers were on pace for 50 wins after defeating the Warriors on Christmas night in 2018. In that game, James suffered a groin strain that served as a wrecking ball for the entire season. He came back to early after L.A.’s young roster collapsed without him and couldn’t rescue a playoff berth. He ended up shutting it down after appearing in a career-low 55 games.
It’s because he missed the playoffs and was able to rest for most of May and all of June for the first time since 2010 that James has looked as spry as he has. He’ll turn 35-years-old on Dec. 30 and must be mindful that Father Time is indeed undefeated. Making matters worse, Davis sustained a knee injury in Sunday’s 127-104 loss to the Nuggets and is likely doubtful to play against the Clippers or anyone this week.
Win total bettors who took the ‘over’ on the Lakers still may have a sweat ahead of them after all. L.A. won just 10 games after Christmas last season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. James should know that better than anyone.
Something tells me his comments about attempting to play as much as possible came from a good place, but won’t hold much weight once we pass the All-Star break in February.
Spurs at Mavericks: We like San Antonio getting points in this spot, especially given Luka Doncic is still out for Dallas. The Spurs are playing better, having gone 5-5 in their last 10. But Dallas is a perfect 6-0 in the Southwest Division. Still, will ride with the Spurs here. SPURS
Magic at Bucks: You’re going to get a boatload of points with Orlando in this spot going on the road to face the NBA’s best team. Milwaukee will be playing its third game in four days, including road games on Christmas Day at Philadelphia and Friday at Atlanta to start a back-to-back. The Magic should stay close. MAGIC
Rockets at Pelicans: Houston’s going back on the road after hosting Brooklyn Saturday following a four-game roadie and the tandem of James Harden and Russell Westbrook are firing on all cylinders right now. New Orleans is the second-worst team in the Western Conference with only Golden State behind the Pelicans. The Rockets figure to get their points. I think the Pels will get theirs as well in what should fall in the 240-point range. OVER
Last week: 1-1-1