LeBron James headed to the free throw line with 1.2 ticks left in the match. He was fouled while attempting a layup on the opposite side of the board following a baseline drive, and his eighth and ninth charity afforded him the opportunity to put the Lakers ahead from a tied score. He did exactly that with his second shot, forcing the out-of-timeouts Rockets to inbound from the baseline and launch a Hail Mary from midcourt that was not answered at the buzzer. His defense was enough to make the pressed-for-time Dillon Brooks, his avowed thorn, miss wide and to the left. With the win secured, he calmly walked off the court.
Perhaps James was too tired to celebrate in the aftermath, and with reason. He could not help but burn rubber for 40 minutes and exert every effort to claim victory for the Lakers. They needed every one of his 37 points, eight assists, six rebounds, and three steals to ensure their third straight triumph, but merely the fifth in their last 10 outings. So much for load management. Supposedly on a minutes restriction, he has played less than 30 in just three of his 13 games to date — and twice because of routs that enabled him to sit out the entire fourth quarter.
It may be early in the 2023-24 season, but it has become abundantly clear that the Lakers need James on the floor just to stay competitive. They supposedly loaded up on talent in the offseason, with general manager Rob Pelinka ensuring the arrival of complementary pieces in the process. Unfortunately, two things wound up spoiling the plan: a spate of injuries to vital cogs and a glaring lack of consistency from the rest. The only constant throughout their campaign so far? You guessed it: the would-be-39-year-old veteran only too willing to carry much less of the load if he could.
Make no mistake: The Lakers can be legitimate championship contenders. To be sure, the operative word is “can,” because it appears many factors need to go their way for them to justify the moist eyes they have cast on the hardware. Considering the unprecedented parity in the National Basketball Association, it’s simply too much to ask him to carry the purple and gold on his shoulders while awaiting a full roster. The others who aren’t scratches need to pull their weight — every single time out. If not, they’re looking at the possibility of making the playoffs, only to have him too gassed by then to make a difference.
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, really. James cannot ease up on the pedal lest the Lakers fall behind in the stacked West. It’s certainly telling that, for all his exertions, the Lakers are sixth in the conference, a mere half game out of a play-in spot. The good news is that he is free of any ailments, and it shows in his astounding numbers: He’s norming 26.4 markers on shooting percentages not seen since 2013, when he won the last of his four Most Valuable Player awards. The bad news is that his debts will come due sooner rather than later. Father Time is undefeated. And when — not if — the dropoff happens, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.