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Will LeBron James' Extended Absence Help or Hurt Lakers in Playoffs?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMay 5, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James dribble the ball during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Friday, April 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

For the better part of the past 20 years, LeBron James has had to battle his way through 82-game regular seasons only to embark on playoff runs that traditionally lasted an additional two months.

Despite this workload, James has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in 94.3 percent of his team's games over his first 15 seasons. He's 260-of-260 in playoff games, never once missing a contest in 14 total trips.

This season is far different, of course.

While James was limited to just 55 games in the 2018-19 season because of a groin injury, even that total has become out of reach because of a high right ankle sprain this year.

Even though he's recently returned to the Los Angeles Lakers' starting lineup, James has played in just 43 games this year. With only eight remaining contests in the regular season, he can max out at just 51 games, although four remaining sets of back-to-backs on the schedule (and leaving Sunday night's game with ankle soreness) make reaching even that number an unrealistic outcome.

While he's said the injury will limit him to less than 100 percent for the rest of his career, could sitting out 20 games over six weeks in the middle of the regular season actually benefit the 36-year-old come playoff time?

There are a few examples to consider here.

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James, like everyone else, got some extended time off because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting the NBA down from March 11 to July 30 last year. Those four-and-a-half months off certainly seemed to help James, who averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.2 steals in 36.3 minutes per night during the playoffs with a true shooting mark of 64.7 percent.

The Lakers, of course, won the Finals over the Miami Heat, with James earning MVP honors behind 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists. He was particularly efficient, connecting on 59.1 percent of his total shots, including 41.7 percent from three.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

So, getting some time off before a long playoff run obviously made a difference for James, right?

Consider Example No. 2 first.

While James was well-rested in 2019-20, the opposite was true just two seasons before. In 2017-18, his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a then-33-year-old James played in all 82 games for the first and only time in his career. He also averaged an NBA-high 36.9 minutes per game in those 82 contests, making him the only player that season to log over 3,000 total minutes.

This was a Cavs team that was playing without Kyrie Irving for the first time, flipped the roster at the trade deadline and cycled through point guards (Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Isaiah Thomas, George Hill) every few weeks.

James somehow still led this team to the NBA Finals, even after finishing with the No. 4 overall seed in the East.

His numbers were arguably better with no time off at all during the regular season, leading all playoff scorers with 34.0 points per game while adding in 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks in 41.9 minutes per night. He continually delivered as needed, hitting game-winners against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Despite getting swept in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors, James averaged 34.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks and shot 52.7 percent overall, including a 51-point masterpiece in Game 1 that stands as the fifth-highest scoring Finals output of all time. 

The 2018 playoff version is arguably the best we've ever seen, with James an unstoppable force of nature who had to pour in monster performances for the Cavs to have a chance every night.

The 2020 version didn't have to do quite as much thanks to having Anthony Davis on board and was more efficient overall even if the raw numbers weren't as impressive.

Both adaptations of James were brilliant, despite coming off very different regular seasons.

Looking at his most recent examples of rest versus regular play, James' numbers from this year don't show much variance, either.

In five games of playing on the second night of a back-to-back (no rest), James is averaging 26.0 points on 50 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 32.9 minutes.

There's been almost no difference when playing on one day of rest, as his numbers slightly change to 25.8 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists in 34.1 minutes.

If anything, James' play has actually dipped following prolonged rest this season.

When given two days or more off before a game, his numbers fall to 22.5 points on 48.9 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists in 33.4 minutes.

While it would seem only natural that a player in his mid-30s would perform much better following some time off, that hasn't been the case for James to this point. If anything, he has only played at a higher level when playing consistently versus having time to rest.

A pair of lackluster games since returning from his high ankle sprain have only helped to confirm this, as James clearly needs more time on the court to make a run at his fifth NBA title.

James' teams have long limped into the playoffs before going on epic Finals and championship runs, so the Lakers shouldn't be too concerned with how they make the postseason, but rather what kind of shape James is in when they do.

StatMuse @statmuse

@WorldWideWob How LeBron’s last 8 Finals teams finished the regular season: 2020 Lakers: 2-5 2018 Cavs: 1-2 2017 Cavs: 0-4 2016 Cavs: 1-3 2015 Cavs: 2-4 2014 Heat: 2-6 2013 Heat: 8-0 2012 Heat: 1-3 Nothing to be too concerned about. https://t.co/n8IRBv5UqM

The Lakers, unlike the 2018 Cavaliers, don't need James to play 40-plus minutes per night to win. With a beefed-up roster consisting of Davis, Dennis Schroder, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and others, L.A. has the luxury of keeping James' minutes at a reasonable level while he works his way back into game shape.

Los Angeles should be more concerned with the status of James' ankle rather than his stamina, as he's proved time and again that he's able to handle whatever workload his teams may need.

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