LOS ANGELES — If it seems as if LeBron James has been shouldering a disproportionate part of the load for the Los Angeles Lakers so far this season, that’s because he has. The four-time MVP admitted after Thursday’s 104-96 win over the Indiana Pacers that he has struggled with striking the right balance between initiating the attack and relying on his teammates to take over.
“That’s the challenge of things I’ve been kind of battling with since the season started,” James said after scoring 38 points in 38 minutes against Indiana, adding 9 rebounds and 7 assists. “How much do I defer and allow some of our young guys to kind of try to figure it out, and how much do I try to take over games? I think tonight was one of those instances where they looked at me and they wanted me to close the game.”
He did just that, checking in with 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter with the Lakers clinging to a four-point lead after leading by as many as 24 in the first half. With James leading the charge by scoring 12 points in the period, L.A. pushed the lead back to double-digits and secured the win, snapping a two-game skid to improve to 12-9.
Seeing James take over a game is nothing new, but earlier in the day Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson said L.A. is trying to manage its star differently than the Cleveland Cavaliers did last year.
“We are trying to make sure that we watch his minutes but also that we don’t run everything through him, because now it is Cleveland all over again, and we don’t want that,” Johnson said in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “We want to get up and down.”
Coming into Thursday, James was leading the Lakers’ point guards in both assists (6.7 per game) and touches (79.3 per game) according to data compiled by Second Spectrum. Rajon Rondo was second at 6.5 assists and 60.8 touches, and Lonzo Ball was third with 4.5 assists and 53.5 touches.
James admitted that he thought he would have less responsibility on his plate to make plays when he pondered the season ahead after joining the Lakers as a free agent this summer.
“I figured I wouldn’t have the ball in my hands as much coming into the season knowing we have multiple ball handlers on our team with Zo and ‘Do,” James said. “BI [Brandon Ingram], Lance [Stephenson], Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] as well. Those guys have the ability to make plays as well. But I’m available any time we need a play to be made. … [It] is a challenge for me and is an adjustment for me. It’s whatever it takes to try to help our ball club be as great as we can be toward the end of the season. And at the same time getting better every day.”
James has a usage rate of 30.8, according to NBA Advanced Stats, ranking eighth in the league, in 34.97 minutes per game, which would be a career low. Last season, playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James’ usage rate was identical — 30.8 — while he played 36.9 minutes per game.
Lakers coach Luke Walton said it is all about finding the right time in the game for James to go full bore, without feeling the need to do so for the entire 48 minutes.
“He’s always going to have a lot of responsibility because of how good he is,” Walton said. “And we’re going to continue to try to have other players make plays, and I think we’re doing that, and there’s times in the game where you’re LeBron James or you’re whoever the best player on the team, you’re going to take over. And he knows when those times are. And he’s good at that. Now we have to continue to get good at, better at, those other times where we’re just playing basketball. And I thought we did that tonight, and fourth-quarter time he did his thing, but we’re continuing to grow to where it’s not just him all of the time.”