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LeBron James says, “I’m doing my job.”
Common sense says he’s lost sight of that job.
LeBron James says, “I’m here to work.”
History says that’s not going to work.
As the depleted Lakers continue to flounder through midseason games that are essentially two hours of garbage time, their best player is insistent on playing garbage minutes, and LeBron James needs to just tell himself no.
It’s not worth it. It’s too dangerous. It’s wearing him down. It’s going to wear him out.
He’s Superman, but he’s 36. He’s invincible, but he’s human. He’s certainly earned the right to be trusted, but Lakers fans have earned the right to be skeptical.
The recent spate of big-minutes games by James — mercifully paused Wednesday when he actually rested the entire fourth quarter of a meaningless blowout loss to the league-leading Utah Jazz — is reminiscent of another notable Lakers’ attempt at hero ball.
Remember in 2013 when 34-year-old Kobe Bryant played at least 46 minutes for seven consecutive games as he attempted to drag his teammates into the playoffs? Remember what happened at the end of that seventh game?
Pop. Torn Achilles tendon. The beginning of the end of a brilliant career.
Without injured Anthony Davis, and more recently Dennis Schroder because of health and safety protocols, the Lakers have played like the league’s laughingstock, and James has certainly felt a Kobe-sized burden to make them respectable.
While Bryant had the noble task of carrying his team into the postseason, James is lifting these Lakers into, what, the end of February? Should it really take a 114-89 loss to the Jazz to get his butt on the bench? What will it take to actually convince him for the first time this season to rest for an entire game?
His 28 minutes of play Wednesday marked only the sixth time in 12 games this month he has played less than 38 minutes. In four of those games, all overtimes, he has played more than 41 minutes. He leads the league in minutes for February, and you know the last time that’s happened for an entire month?
It was 2006. He was 21.
He had young legs then. He’s fighting dead legs now. In his last 11 games he’s shooting 23% from beyond the three-point line, his worst such performance from there in the last three seasons.
Sure, the Lakers have looked terrible in losing four consecutive games without Davis and Schroder, but so what?
These games will be forgotten by spring. These embarrassments will be smothered by Schroder’s possible appearance this weekend and Davis’ expected return sometime after the All-Star break. These losses might cost the Lakers a few spots in the postseason seedings, but with only a handful of fans in the stands, home-court advantage is basically meaningless.
The Lakers aren’t going to need these games in June, but they’re going to need LeBron James in June.
If the entire team’s recent malaise after its record-short 71-day break between seasons is any indication, summer could get ugly. The Lakers need their best player at his best. They need the unbreakable James to both recognize and respect his mortality. They need The King to take a throne.
“I think this whole narrative of ‘LeBron needs more rest’ … I’ve never talked about it. I don’t talk about it. I don’t believe it,” James said earlier this week, later adding, “I’m here to work. I’m here to punch my clock in and be available to my teammates.”
Many folks feel he has punched that clock so impressively over 18 seasons that nobody has a right to question his methods. He knows himself better than anybody. If he says he can play, shut up and let him play.
“I liked what he said,” said ESPN analyst Mark Jackson during the national broadcast Wednesday, adding, “If he wants to play, I trust him.”
But there’s a different narrative at work here. It’s one where the Lakers need to protect James from himself. It’s also one where they need to protect themselves from James.
Some wonder whether he’s playing in search of a fifth MVP award, equaling the bounty won by Michael Jordan. But the Lakers have never judged success by MVP awards. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal just won one each. Jerry West never won any.
The Lakers also don’t celebrate weekly wins, monthly records, or really any game that is played before the end of spring. Unless Bryant was dropping 81 points on a Sunday night in late January, they’re barely paying attention.
This franchise, this town, is about championships and only championships. James knows that. He’s said that. Last fall he publicly acknowledged that Lakers fans would never fully accept him until he has won a title.
So, he won one. He’s in. The people love him. The team loves him. The community cherishes him. There’s only one thing he can do that would further endear him to this city of champions.
Win another one.
That’s not guaranteed to happen if he becomes the oldest player to win an MVP. It’s not a lock if he leads the league in minutes played. Assuming Davis is eventually healthy, the only way the Lakers win a championship is if James is also healthy.
The belief here is that he’s messing with that health, which means, for all his greatness, LeBron James is messing with the Lakers.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.