November 28, 2021

Why Lakers should (and shouldn’t) be concerned about LeBron James’ return from latest injury

At the beginning of his career, worrying about whether LeBron James could stay healthy was like worrying about whether you would see the sun in the sky the next day. He’ll be available to play. Moving on.

James was an iron man with the Cavaliers and Heat, only occasionally missing games for minor injuries or rest. Since he joined the Lakers in the summer of 2018, though, he has dealt with more serious issues. Most recently, he suffered an abdominal injury that has already knocked him out of multiple games, and it is unclear when he will return to the floor.

No one should question James’ effectiveness when he is fully healthy, as he is still posting terrific numbers (24.8 points, 7.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds per game). However, with James in the midst of his 19th NBA season and quickly approaching his 37th birthday, it is fair to ask one big question: Should the Lakers be worried about James moving forward?

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Why the Lakers should be concerned about LeBron James

The three most significant injuries of James’ career have occurred while playing for the Lakers. He suffered a groin strain during the 2018-19 season, a rough campaign that ended with Los Angeles missing the playoffs. He sat out for an extended stretch in 2020-21 after going down with a high ankle sprain, and the Lakers fell to the Suns in the first round. Los Angeles has struggled without James this season, most notably losing a game against Oklahoma City in which it held a comfortable lead.

The logical response here: What about that 2019-20 championship season? Worked out pretty well, huh? Yes, but James experienced what was essentially a typical offseason before teams entered the Florida “bubble.” Without the benefit of those months of rest, would James have suffered another injury?

James’ health problems are even more alarming when comparing his run with the Lakers to his previous stints with the Cavaliers and Heat. From 2003-2018, he played in 94 percent of regular-season games, but he has played in less than 75 percent of regular-season games from 2018-2021.

LeBron James availability  Percentage of regular-season games played
Cavaliers (2003-2010) 95 percent (548/574)
Heat (2010-14) 94 percent (294/312)
Cavaliers (2014-18) 92 percent (301/328)
Lakers (2018-2021) 74 percent (173/233)

Source: ESPN Stats and Info (current as of Nov. 4)

Just as concerning as his recent injury history is James’ volume of minutes played. The four-time NBA MVP has played 50,277 regular-season minutes (fifth on the all-time list) and 11,035 playoff minutes (first on the all-time list) in his career. He has played in 266 postseason games, the equivalent of participating in an additional three regular seasons — but with more intensity.

The guys ahead of James on the all-time minutes list (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett) took great care of their bodies in order to extend their careers, but they eventually broke down and saw sharp declines in productivity. James has defied the aging curve and posted insane numbers into his mid-30s, but Father Time comes for everyone.

Simply put, when James sits, it usually spells disaster for the Lakers. And he has been sitting a lot more lately.

Why the Lakers shouldn’t be concerned about LeBron James

Yes, the injuries are piling up, but it’s worth adding some context here. The ankle injury was the result of a player diving at James’ feet, not his body breaking down. The abdominal and groin strains obviously aren’t ideal, but James hasn’t required a major surgery. We’re not talking about an ACL or Achilles injury.

As for the “bubble” season, the other side of the coin is that the Lakers had the shortest offseason in league history after capturing the title (71 days). They completed a 72-game regular season in less than 150 days. That’s just not normal.

James certainly took issue with the turnaround in a series of tweets earlier this year, expressing concern about the injuries to multiple All-Stars.

Even after suffering multiple injuries over the last few years, James has been his usual stellar self. Unlike Nowitzki and Garnett, his numbers have not dropped off dramatically at this stage of his career. 

James by season with Lakers PPG APG RPG SPG FG % 3PT % MPG
2018-19 (55 games) 27.4 8.3 8.5 1.3 51.0 33.9 35.2
2019-20 (67 games) 25.3 10.2 7.8 1.2 49.3 34.8 34.6
2020-21 (45 games) 25.0 7.8 7.7 1.1 51.3 36.5 33.4
2021-22 (six games) 24.8 7.0 5.5 2.3 46.7 34.7 37.0

Each time James has faced doubts about whether he could continue performing at this level, he has delivered a strong response. He has spent seven figures annually to maintain his body, and he has challenged the idea of what is considered an athlete’s prime.

Perhaps this really will be the start of a new era for James, but do you feel comfortable betting against him? Again?