LeBron James' rage against the dying of the light is tipping in Father Time's favor
Two months after his 38th birthday, 19 days since setting the NBA's all-time scoring record and a week following a record-tying 19th All-Star appearance, LeBron James is still giving Father Time a game for the ages.
In a span of less than two hours Monday, news snowballed from the Lakers ruling James out for a vital game against the Memphis Grizzlies to reports that his right foot injury will likely sideline him for "an extended period of time" (multiple weeks even) to his own confirmation that this, indeed, "F*n sucks."
Just as his 12th-place Lakers were showing signs of life, having won four of five games since an active trade deadline, James is waging battle with the one opponent he cannot beat, and they are headed for another overtime. What becomes of the Lakers in his absence is an afterthought.
The basketball vitality of one of the all-time greats — perhaps the all-time great — is in serious peril.
Even with James, the Lakers faced a narrow path to avoiding a second straight lottery appearance, let alone emerging from the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since their championship in 2020. His latest absence is further evidence that the bubble title was the anomaly, not the injuries around it, and we are now years into a natural decline that comes with age, whether James or anyone else will admit it.
Relative to the rest of his remarkably durable career, James' tenure in Los Angeles has been plagued by injuries practically from the start. On Christmas 2018, two months removed from his Lakers debut and five days before he turned 34, James strained his groin. His ensuing 17-game absence marked the first significant injury of his career; he had previously never missed more than 13 games in any one season.
James played 156 straight games prior to the groin strain, including two grueling Finals runs, a league-leading 3,026 minutes in his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and his first 34 games with the Lakers.
Since then, his longest streaks without the benefit of an offseason are the 24 straight games he played en route to a title in the bubble and the 25 consecutive he played before his left knee swelled in January 2022.
So when James said of the stretch run at his pregame All-Star news conference on Feb. 19, "It's 23 of the most important games of my career for a regular season," his "hope I can figure out a way to just make sure that I'm available on the floor every single night" was just that: hope against an undefeated Father Time.
Between his groin and knee injuries, James nursed thoracic and abdominal muscle strains, a sore left ankle and a high right ankle sprain. He has made every Christmas Day and All-Star appearance since arriving in L.A., but his availability in the days and weeks following those showcase games has been sporadic at best.
The Lakers managed his minutes after the 2019 All-Star Game, shutting him down completely once they were eliminated from playoff contention. In the hours before the coronavirus pandemic paused the NBA season on March 11, 2020, then-coach Frank Vogel told reporters that the Lakers would treat James' lingering groin injury with caution, balancing a "big-picture mindset" with their pursuit of a top playoff seed.
A four-month respite, a load managed reentry into a shortened regular season and the absence of travel on the Walt Disney World campus afforded James enough rest to perform at his peak for 21 playoff games. He averaged 28-11-9 on 56/37/72 shooting splits, leading the Lakers to their championship in the bubble.
A week after the 2021 All-Star Game, James sprained his right ankle. He missed 26 of his next 28 games, returning for a first-round playoff exit. Last season, he returned on a swollen left knee in time for his 18th All-Star appearance, only to rest it again two weeks later. He gutted through two more weeks for the Lakers until his left ankle sprain and their playoff elimination prematurely ended a second season in three years.
The 2022-23 campaign has been more of a slog for James, whose participation in 47 of the Lakers' 61 games is a credit to his physical prowess. He reinjured his groin three weeks into this season, returned for three games and reinjured his left ankle three days later. He played through both ailments, averaging 36.5 minutes per night and only occasionally missing a game for a back-to-back, a four-day rest or an illness — until he broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 7.
It was then that what had previously been described as "a day-to-day thing" was deemed more serious. James rested his sore left ankle for the next three games, a weeklong reprieve during which Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said an MRI revealed no structural damage and Turner's Chris Haynes reported, "It’s something that’s been nagging him for a few weeks already, but it gets to points where it just gets unbearable, and he plays through it. People that talked to me said he was really struggling with that foot."
When asked if the Lakers planned to rest James through All-Star weekend, Ham told reporters, "No, I don’t think he'd allow us to do that." Indeed, James returned for the final game before the break, suggesting that his MRI results were "absolutely" a relief and declaring, "My ankle and my foot feels really good right now."
James played 14 minutes of the All-Star Game, citing a bruised hand after calling it a night at halftime. He played 26 minutes of a blowout win over the depleted defending champion Golden State Warriors in the first game back from the break and then reinjured his right foot in a comeback victory against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He finished the game, despite telling teammates in the third quarter, "I heard it pop."
The Athletic's Shams Charania reported Monday that the Lakers were preparing for another extended absence, and in an addendum Tuesday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski firmed up the timeline. James will be reevaluated in two weeks, when the 12th-place Lakers will reassess their position in the standings and reportedly determine whether it makes sense to expedite the 38-year-old's return for a late playoff push.
The rundown of James' injury history in Los Angeles, where they are now bracing for him to miss at least 26 games for the fourth time in five years, reinforces just how remarkable his 2020 championship was. The only season in L.A. that he has finished healthy — and the only season in that time in which the Lakers won a playoff series — is the one in which a global pandemic forced the NBA into lockdown for four months.
That James can still average 29.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists when he manages to stay on the court at age 38 is equally impressive, but at some point, we have to face the reality that sustaining his greatness for anything close to what it takes to win another championship might be too much to ask.
The Lakers must win 12 of their final 21 games to finish .500 and leapfrog four teams to avoid a win-or-go-home scenario in the play-in tournament, if they even manage to get there. They are 44 games above .500 (+4.4 points per 48 minutes) with James in the lineup the past five seasons and 26 games below .500 without him (-4.1 points per 48 minutes), including a swing of 12.6 points per 100 possessions this season.
The Lakers' season is all but over, barring another accelerated return by the aging face of their franchise, and even then their ceiling is sub-championship. As former Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma conceded when James rested for five days before their Christmas Day game in 2019, "It's kind of hard to next-man-up LeBron. He does so much. Shots come easier when he's on the floor because everyone just looks at him."
James is the identity of every team he has ever played on, even the storied Lakers, and without him, they are rudderless. As James said in May 2021, when he last fought back from a right ankle injury at the end of a regular season, "If I'm not 100 percent or close to 100 percent, it don't matter where we land." He was right.
It was then that we began considering the winnowing gap between James and Father Time. He informed us in that moment, "I don't think I will ever get back to 100 percent in my career." We took that admission with several grains of salt, as he had made similar comments on several occasions, only to resume his persistent ascension. Even this past July, James told ESPN's Dave McMenamin, "I'm 100 percent healthy."
But reality tells a different tale. The Lakers are working on a second straight playoff absence, and James has not navigated a healthy 82-game season for five years, no matter how resilient he has proven. The truth is probably closer to what James revealed in this exact scenario two years ago, when he said, "I do a great job of keeping my body in the best possible shape that I can possibly be in that particular season."
What his "best possible shape" is in any "particular season" going forward is in serious question, and the Lakers' future depends upon his ability to exceed the expectations the past handful of seasons have set.
They traded their 2027 first-round draft pick to revamp their roster this season, knowing full well that James' feet were on shaky ground and five of their six acquisitions at the trade deadline could be free agents in July. Upgrades on the open market could be staring at a lottery team in the twilight of a legend's career.
James can become a free agent after next season, when he will presumably pursue his dream of playing with his oldest son, Bronny, at age 40, in L.A. or elsewhere. To ask him to carry a contender in the meantime is to ask the Lakers to do what they have not for five years: Carry him to the playoffs. Either that or James defies the odds again — never the worst long-shot bet, considering how no one else has given Father Time such a run.