“Word on the street is that he’s about 280 pounds.”
That phrase was uttered by Brian Windhorst on a recent episode of his Hoop Collective podcast for ESPN. The “he” Windy is referencing is, of course, LeBron James who is making his way back from a groin injury and not in the type of shape he normally would be at this stage of the season.
Windorst and Dave McMenamin then went on to discuss how LeBron has typically used a very specific regimen over the past few years in order to get himself in tip-top condition leading into the playoffs. The groin injury suffered on Christmas day, subsequently leading to 18 missed games, has thrown LeBron off his normal routine. Resulting, according to the word on the street, James being a bit heavier than he normally would be (even though he carries those extra pounds better than any normal human would).
LeBron James is often still referred to as “the best player in the world”. This is, at the same time, both a ceremonial title that doesn’t actually capture the realities of the moment and an acknowledgement of what is possible from James in any given game.
On the first point, LeBron is certainly not the best player right now. James Harden is averaging damn near 40 points a night while carrying a Rockets team up the West standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a physical freak of nature who has the height of a center, the fluidity and dexterity of a wing, and game that — both in results and the aesthetics of wreaking havoc in the paint with ridiculous dunks — reminds of young Shaq. He’s also the best player on the team with the league’s best record. Even Paul George is playing at level rarely seen, scoring nearly 30 a night using a diversified all-court game while also playing DPOY level defense.
LeBron is not playing near the level of these guys right now, rendering the “best player in the game” stuff a bit pointless.
But here is the point. You know who is the best player in the world, right? Playoff LeBron.
Playoff LeBron takes the hyper-focused gameplans of a 7-game series, routes them through his super computer of a brain, and then spits out performances that crack any code you throw at him. Playoff LeBron dissects your defense, ramps up his own defense just enough to be neutral or slightly above average (and even amazing on a crucial player), and then lives outside the confines of what is seemingly possible. Playoff LeBron becomes the singular player who cannot be schemed for, cannot be contained; a player who bends the action to his will in order to generate win after win after win. Don’t get me wrong, Playoff LeBron can be beat, but only by a superior team. Not by a superior player. Because a superior player does not exist.
When you square all of the above, there’s really only one conclusion to come to: the Lakers will need Playoff LeBron much sooner than the actual playoffs. They’ll need Playoff LeBron to show up now just to make the playoffs. The math is pretty simple here.
The Lakers have 25 games left in the regular season and are currently in 10th place in the West, 3 games back of the 8th seed (but only 2 back in the loss column). LeBron is, via the “word on the street” reports above and simply through the eye test of watching him in his first few games back from injury, not in the type of condition he normally would be at this time of the year. They’ll need to make up at least those three games, and probably closer to 5 in the standings to position themselves appropriately.
The Athletic’s Joe Vardon lays it nicely in his post All-Star game column (subscription only):
“I feel great,” LeBron said Sunday, after posting 19 points and eight rebounds in his NBA-record 15th consecutive All-Star start. “Looking forward to the second half of the season. Looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back in this playoff race. That’s my only mindset. That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much on how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”
And for some additional context, Vardon adds:
LeBron’s teams haven’t been this low in the standings, this late in the year, since his second season. It was the last time he missed the playoffs. In the 26 games following the All-Star break last year, LeBron averaged 29.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists for the Cavs. He played in all 104 games and reached an eighth-straight NBA Finals. One of the dominant storylines coming down the stretch league-wide will be whether LeBron can copy that for the Lakers and get them into the playoffs.
It’s important to note, here, that this burden doesn’t fall on LeBron alone. Kyle Kuzma won MVP at the Rising Stars Game over All-Star Weekend. Brandon Ingram has been playing well in face of nonstop trade rumors. Lonzo Ball is approaching his initial timeline for return and will hopefully be nearing a return in the coming couple of weeks. Add these three to Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, a (hopefully) getting healthy Josh Hart, KCP, and the recently traded for Reggie Bullock and the Lakers have complementary pieces to help LeBron make this push.
But even if LeBron won’t be going at this alone, the point above stands. This is not mid December. The Lakers are no longer the 4th seed cruising along by playing top shelf defense and finding enough on offense to maintain their positioning. No, the Lakers are currently on the outside looking in at a playoff race which will only become more fierce as we move into March. They’ll need the best of LeBron to prop them up and carry them there. I’m as interested as anyone in seeing whether he can conjure up the efforts he’s typically preserved for May and June in March and early April.