LeBron James has once again been outstanding during the first seven games of the 2023-24 regular season. His averages of 25.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game are unbelievable for a player of his age, but one number stands out above all: 35.9 minutes per game.
LeBron was supposed to be on a minutes restriction to start the year. Instead, he is in the top 10 in minutes per game. That high total has been very necessary because of how poorly the Lakers have played without him.
With a 3-4 record in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Lakers are quickly finding themselves in an untenable situation.
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LeBron’s teams have always been worse with him off the floor. But no superstar has had a bigger difference in on/off data this season than him.
The Lakers have outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. They have been outscored by 37.0 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That is a massive 48.6-point swing on when he’s on the floor versus off it.
Anthony Davis has not been able to pick up the slack in LeBron’s absence. His own minutes have been extended too — his 36.9 minutes per game rank fifth in the league. But when Davis has been on the floor without LeBron, the Lakers have been outscored by over 41 points per 100 possessions, per PBP Stats.
All of the strain on the Lakers’ two big stars is not sustainable. Neither has played in more than 56 games over the past four seasons, and Davis is already experiencing the minor aches and pains that have plagued him throughout his career. He had to be removed from Monday’s game after falling and experiencing discomfort in his hip/groin area.
The Lakers have had to depend so heavily on LeBron and Davis because of how poorly the other role players have performed. D’Angelo Russell has shown the same issues with shot selection as last season. Austin Reaves and Gabe Vincent have been ice-cold to start the season.
Taurean Prince and Christian Wood are the only players off the bench who have played reasonably well. But the Lakers need more contributions from the rest of their guys if they want to get back to the Western Conference Finals or beyond.
The heavy reliance on LeBron and Davis and poor performance from the bench is also due in part to injuries that the Lakers’ role players have faced. Rui Hachimura has played in only three games this season, and Jarred Vanderbilt has yet to appear in a game for the Lakers.
Both of those players were key contributors last season who should help ease the burden off LeBron. Hachimura in particular looked like he was turning a corner, scoring nine straight points in a quarter before suffering a concussion and missing a week’s worth of games.
According to Basketball-Reference’s projections, the Lakers are on a 38-win pace and expected to finish with the eighth seed in the Western Conference at their current rate. That pace isn’t good enough, and they can’t keep on leaning on LeBron and Davis to play this many minutes without inviting injury.
If the return of Vanderbilt and Hachimura doesn’t solve their issues, then this is quickly going to become a team that is desperate for a trade to shake things up.