The first season of the LeBron era in Los Angeles has not gone as planned. The Lakers will miss the postseason—which will end James’s personal streak of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances and 13 straight postseason appearances. Los Angeles reportedly placed James on a minutes restriction but should they shut him down completely? The Crossover staff answered that question in our latest roundtable.
Chris Ballard: No
No. Call me a traditionalist, but shutting down the greatest player in history—or second-greatest, if you want to argue for MJ—for nearly a fifth of the season shouldn’t be an option for a team unless it is based on serious injury concerns. Yes, the regular season is too long, and yes, other teams are doing it, but if you’re the Lakers—one of the pillar franchises in the league—and you sell your fans on a new LeBron James-led vision and then serve them up this kind of season, you owe it to them to play LeBron. Same goes for all those fans in road cities who overpaid for their tickets for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see James in person. This is a players league but it only thrives because of fan interest. And that’s not even factoring in the PR and chemistry side of it for L.A. Not only would it behoove the Lakers to earn back some goodwill right now, but if they plan on keeping any of these core players—or attracting new ones—it sure would help for LeBron and the remaining crew to finish strong and build momentum while reinforcing James’s best leadership qualities.
Chris Mannix: No
No, because if you are going to be against tanking then be against tanking. I get it: there’s no upside to playing James anymore. The Lakers are within three losses of the Pelicans, Mavericks, Magic, Hornets and Wizards and within four of the Grizzlies. More than the optics of exceeding last season’s 35-win total, the Lakers need a high draft pick, either to add to its young core or to use as a trade asset with it. But the NBA is an 82-game season and the Lakers have a lot of games left against playoff contenders that could swing the standings. They have been playing poorly, sure, but James’s greatness gives them a chance to win every night. Without him, they will almost certainly lose. If the Lakers try to shut James down this early, the NBA should have something to say about it.
Michael Shapiro: Yes
I really don’t see the upside in playing LeBron through Los Angeles’s last 15 games. The Lakers are closer to 14th in the West than eighth, and their playoff chances are slim to none. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are done for the season. If the kids were healthy, perhaps LeBron could serve as a mentor through the final slog of the season. Who’s left to mentor now? Moritz Wagner and Alex Caruso? They’re development is of little importance to Los Angeles’s long-term goals.
James is 34 and approaching 46,000 minutes. He’s not immune to injury nor physical decline as we close his 16th season. The best course is to let LeBron begin his offseason early, and tank away to close the year. Los Angeles could potentially snag a top-10 draft pick—key trade bait in a potential Anthony Davis deal—and close its circus of a season quietly. With no benefit to playing James through early April, Los Angeles should give him an early vacation and look to salvage a disastrous first year with a successful summer.
Andrew Sharp: No
The damage from this season is done and there’s nothing left to play for, but at this point, as stupid as it sounds, I think there’s some symbolic value in LeBron finishing the season in L.A. and showing that he’s committed. He’s spent most of the season distanced from teammates, with fans and local media wondering whether basketball is his top priority. Finishing these last few weeks on the court, in the middle of this mess, is an easy way to show that he cares about the next phase for the Lakers. I’m sure some would argue that he needs the rest, but LeBron can pace himself at this point in his career, and they are already limiting his minutes. Most importantly, we all just lived through a month of wall-to-wall LeBron takes. Reasonable decision or not, I just don’t have the energy for a week of “Did LeBron James quit on the Lakers?” conversations.
Rob Mahoney: No
The default setting for a superstar player should be to play, save in the case of injury or extenuating circumstance. Either could be argued with LeBron, though not all that convincingly. Playing James doesn’t mean maxing out his minutes, forcing him into heavy usage, or denying opportunities to developing players. Frankly, it doesn’t even mean that the Lakers win—a real consideration now that L.A. is playing for lottery odds. LeBron will have plenty of time for rest and recovery in what will be the longest offseason of his career. So he may as well play out the string, even if it means reaping what he’s sown. The only thing LeBron can deliver the Lakers this season is his night-to-night participation.
Mitch Goldich: Yes
Yes, of course the Lakers should shut down LeBron. I don’t like it, and I understand every argument against doing it, but given the current rules that govern the league and the willingness that other teams have shown to disregard short-term competitive integrity in pursuit of long-term contention, they should shut him down.
I detailed this in a Twitter thread last week, but when the NBA smoothed out the lottery odds before this season, it had a big impact beyond just the top three picks.
The league may have reduced the incentive to tank at the very bottom of the standings, but any spots on that graph where the red line is above the blue line (slots 5-12 in the lottery) now have a better chance of jumping into the top three, or coming away with the No. 1 overall pick, than they would have last year. For example, a team in the eighth spot has a 6.0% chance at the top pick, whereas last year it had a 2.8% shot. That’s a huge edge in an industry getting smarter about probability and fractions of percentages. The Lakers have even more incentive to tank than they would have last March, and—unfortunately—it’s the right move.