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LeBron James used to be indestructible. Now his health is the Lakers’ biggest concern.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/19/2021 Ben Golliver
LeBron James has missed 10 of the Los Angeles Lakers' first 16 games, raising questions about his durability as his 37th birthday approaches next month. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP) © Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP LeBron James has missed 10 of the Los Angeles Lakers' first 16 games, raising questions about his durability as his 37th birthday approaches next month. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James has spent the past two weeks exuding restless energy.

On good nights, the Los Angeles Lakers forward has coped with injury by serving as a Staples Center ambassador, making the rounds to personally greet celebrities at their courtside seats. On bad nights, James has strode out near center court to object to the officiating and headed for the locker room well before the buzzer during ugly losses.

There have been more bad nights than good without James for the West’s preseason favorites, who have an 8-8 record despite a soft and home-heavy schedule. The Lakers, who had James back in the lineup for Friday’s contest with the Boston Celtics, have looked like a lottery team in the 10 games he has missed with ankle and abdominal injuries. Instead of banking early wins and working through compatibility concerns with Russell Westbrook following an offseason overhaul, the angsty Lakers have twice blown double-digit leads to the Oklahoma City Thunder, gotten run off the court by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls and fallen back into the middle of the conference standings.

“We suck,” all-star forward Anthony Davis said last week. “We’re not winning a championship the way that we’re playing.”

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Plenty has gone wrong: Westbrook is averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, Davis has yet to develop a reliable partnership with his new point guard, centers DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard have struggled to add value, and the defense has sagged badly with so many key pieces departing over the summer. However, the biggest issue by far has been James’s spotty health. The Lakers weren’t built to win without him.

James knows this better than anyone, devoting countless hours and millions of dollars to maintaining his body. After leading the Lakers to the 2019-20 title at the Disney World bubble, the four-time champion made a point to note that he had never missed a playoff game in his career and that “the best thing you could do for your teammates is to be available.” Indeed, the future Hall of Famer has cherished his 19-year run on center stage so much that he sometimes scribbles “Man in the Arena” on his sneakers, nodding to the famous Theodore Roosevelt speech. That man isn’t meant for the sidelines.

Before his 2018 arrival to Los Angeles, James, who turns 37 in December, was a paragon of durability. During his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, spanning seven seasons, James appeared in 95 percent of his team’s games. During his four-year run with the Miami Heat, James posted a 94 percent availability rate. And even as he entered his 30s during his second stint with the Cavaliers, he managed to appear in 92 percent of his team’s games over four years.

His Los Angeles tenure has been a different story. Now in his fourth season with the Lakers, James has appeared in just 72 percent of his team’s games, missing lengthy stretches with a groin strain in 2018-19 and a high ankle sprain last season. With James, the Lakers have posted a 112-61 (.647) record since his arrival, which equates to a 53-win pace over an 82-game schedule. Without him, they have gone 27-41 (.397), a 33-win pace.

There are several reasons to be concerned about James’s early health problems, even though both of his injuries have been relatively minor. For starters, James has logged more than 50,000 regular season minutes and an NBA-record 11,035 postseason minutes. Unlike last season, when the Lakers rushed back onto the court after the bubble, James had more than four months of rest and recovery time following a first-round exit. He didn’t compete in the Tokyo Olympics and played sparingly during the preseason to save himself for games that mattered.

What’s more, James has suffered injuries despite taking a feel-out approach to his new partnership with Westbrook. In his six appearances to date, James has been more jumper-dependent than ever, attempting a career-low 3.8 free throws and launching a career-high 8.2 three-pointers per game. The Lakers have struggled with their spacing, especially in lineups that include Jordan or Howard, and James has attempted just 30 percent of his shots from within three feet of the hoop, down from 38 percent in his first Lakers season.

Los Angeles Lakers stars LeBron James (left) and Russell Westbrook (right) have a long way to go to build championship-level chemistry. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP) © Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Los Angeles Lakers stars LeBron James (left) and Russell Westbrook (right) have a long way to go to build championship-level chemistry. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Much of the discussion about James’s uncertain fit with Westbrook has centered on which player gets to have the ball, but pace is another worry. The Lakers have shot up from 21st in pace last season to second this season with Westbrook, and that style of play could prove taxing. Although James has long resisted strategic resting and other forms of load management, his early average of 37 minutes seems unsustainable. For context, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone are the only players to have handled such a heavy nightly load so deep into their 30s, and they did so during a much slower era. Something has to give.

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“As you get older, there’s certain things your body doesn’t want to do,” Dwyane Wade, James’s Heat running mate, said in an interview last week. “These little knickknack injuries, that’s how it started with me. Then it turns into bigger injuries. Eventually it gets on your nerves. It’s not from a lack of being able to play basketball. I didn’t lose my talent. I just lost other things that helped my talents become great, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.

“If anybody is going to figure out how to stop these knickknack injuries from becoming something bigger, it’s LeBron James. But also it’s going to come to a point in time when LeBron decides for himself that, not because of talent, he doesn’t want to go through everything it takes to prepare for that night.”

James isn’t there yet. He remains focused on a fifth ring, holds a max contract that runs through the 2022-23 season and closes in on his longtime dream of playing alongside his 17-year-old son, Bronny. But James has reached the point when his indestructible days are gone. He can no longer shake off every minor setback by simply tightening his shoelaces and playing on.

When he returned to the court Friday, James was greeted by a few doses of good news. Third-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker has impressed since returning from thumb surgery. Carmelo Anthony has quickly solidified himself as a fan favorite thanks to his timely three-point shooting. And Coach Frank Vogel has shifted Davis to center in his starting lineup, a natural and anticipated adjustment aimed at creating space and maximizing Westbrook’s value.

Those developments will matter only if James can maintain good health for the balance of this season and help the Lakers catch up to the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns in the chemistry department. His groin injury was the inflection point of the Lakers’ 2018-19 season, sending them spiraling into the lottery. Ditto for his high ankle sprain last season, which was a major factor in dropping the Lakers into the West’s play-in tournament.

This year’s group, stocked with so many fresh faces and role players on minimum contracts, has stumbled without James. History suggests that the Lakers’ title hopes won’t survive another extended absence from their franchise player.

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