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LeBron James running out of time to save both Lakers and twilight of his career

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LeBron James has never been one to rest on his laurels. Despite four championships, four MVPs, the all-time scoring record and more accolades than we could reasonably list, he’s still gunning for more. It came as no surprise, therefore, when he pegged the next two months as some of the most important regular-season basketball he will ever play. “It’s 23 of the most important games of my career, for the regular season,” James said at All-Star weekend. “That’s the type of mindset that I have and I hope the guys will have coming off the break.”

It’s a somewhat ridiculous statement from a player as accomplished as James. He could’ve retired a decade ago and made the Hall of Fame. Yet here he is, 20 years into arguably the greatest career in NBA history, casually flirting with 30 points per game in the NBA’s biggest market. Nothing has slowed him down so far. Well, except for a string of recent injuries that he was determined to avoid down the stretch. “I’m going to figure out ways to make sure I’m available and on the floor for every single one of these 23 games,” James ended that All-Star quote by saying. He lasted a week.

On Sunday, James suffered a foot injury in his team’s miraculous 27-point comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks. It seemed harmless enough at the time. James finished the game. He even scored 11 fourth-quarter points. The Lakers ruled him out of Tuesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, but as the front-end of a back-to-back, that was to be expected. The bombshell dropped soon after: the Lakers fear an extended absence for James. The 2022-23 don’t have an extended absence’s worth of time to spare.

For now, the injury is listed as foot soreness. Details will surely emerge in the coming days. But each day is precious for a 29-32 Lakers team about to embark upon the most important stretch of their season. They’ll travel to Memphis on Tuesday for a game in which they will be heavy underdogs without James. Next come three straight games against opponents vying for Western Conference play-in spots. The Thunder can clinch a tiebreaker over the Lakers on Wednesday. The Timberwolves can do so on Friday. Golden State can knot the season series with Los Angeles on Sunday, but with Stephen Curry likely returning soon, the Lakers need to take victories over the Warriors wherever they present themselves.

Drop all four games and the season is functionally over. Lose even two of them and the Lakers, missing James, would need to go 10-7 down the stretch just to reach .500. That’d be a tall order for a team that is now 36-62 without James since he arrived in 2018.

This season’s 5-9 James-less record is just as dire. The Lakers barely managed to survive his first extended absence of the season. Were it not for Anthony Davis averaging 31 points and 14 rebounds per game during the November stretch James missed, the Lakers may be out of the playoff race already. Since returning from his December foot injury, Davis is averaging just 22.3 points per game. It’s not fully clear if he’s ready to put the Lakers on his back again.

The last time he did so, it cost him over a month. Davis played 46 minutes against Boston on Dec. 13 and got hurt the next time the Lakers took the floor. It’s been a recurring pattern over the past four seasons. Either James or Davis goes down. The other picks up the slack, only to get hurt after carrying an unfair workload. James averaged over 24 shots and 36 minutes per game during the 17 games Davis missed. Soon after, he missed three games with, you guessed it, foot problems.

James has now missed almost 24 percent of all regular-season Laker games since he joined the team. That’s not an outrageous figure by normal standards, but James has largely been superhuman for two decades. Even when the ailment is fluky, such as the ankle injury James sustained in 2021 when Solomon Hill dove into his foot, the recovery time isn’t. It’d be difficult to imagine Miami-era James missing almost two months to something as pedestrian as a high-ankle sprain.

You’d rather have 60 games of James than 82 from a typical player, but James has never been typical by any standard. What other 20-year veterans are openly calling the stretch run of a sub-.500 team “23 of the most important games of my career?” The shaping of James’ legacy is an ongoing process. His legacy as a Laker, outside of one remarkable championship run, is going to be defined at least partially by injuries.

There’s nothing James can do about that. He’s held off Father Time longer than any basketball player ever has, and even now, at the age of 38, he’s better than the overwhelming majority of the league’s stars in their primes. But that’s a battle every player eventually loses, and James might just be losing it in a less conventional way. The period of his career in which he can credibly lead a team through an 82-game season might be over due not to ability, but durability.

It’s an outcome James has both feared and prepared for. He wanted to pass the torch to Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. He pushed for a Russell Westbrook trade in Los Angeles knowing that he couldn’t carry the burden he’s shouldered for the past 20 years any longer. Both situations imploded, in part, over LeBron’s inability to hand over the steering wheel. The Lakers landed D’Angelo Russell at the deadline. Perhaps a point guard that is equally capable of supporting James most of the time and supplanting him when necessary is the right compromise.

We may not even find out this season. We don’t know what next year will bring, and James will be eligible for free agency after that. Whether he’ll prioritize the comforts of his Los Angeles home, a roster better equipped to guide him into middle age or merely the opportunity to play with his rapidly ascending son is unclear. What is clear is that the choices he and the Lakers make moving forward will dictate what kind of twilight James is capable of having. An injury of this sort was inevitable far before the next two months became “23 of the most important” games of his career because his team’s and his own mistakes made them that important in the first place. James still has excellent basketball in him, but the days of teams asking him to sustain it for eight months are simply over.

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