Now come the excuses.
“You have four guys in our top eight rotation that you have to really rely on, and it’s unfair to them to ask for so much when they’re in their second or third year,” James said. “We have Zo [Lonzo Ball], Josh [Hart], Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] and B.I. [Brandon Ingram]. And we had Zu [Ivica Zubac] at the time. That’s like five out of our top nine guys that we rely on, and they’re in their first and second year. You can’t find one other team in our league right now that has to rely on that much every single night from their young guys that’s in their first or second year.”
“It’s unfair to those guys for us to continue to — we want them to learn, we want them to learn, we want them to learn — I want them to learn,” James said. “But also we have to understand that they’re young as well and they’re going to make mistakes. You just try to limit the mistakes as much as possible. You look at all of the 16 teams right now, the best teams in our league right now, just look at the guys they rely on every single night to be able to come through for them. If they have a young guy it’s probably one or two of them. So it’s been tough on us. It’s been tough on us.”
LeBron is a little all over the place – setting the standard at first- and second-year players, but also including third-year players Ingram and Zubac.* There’s also no simple way to measure reliance. Playing time? Production?
I went with the measure that treated LeBron’s claim most favorably. Helpfully, it’s also the measure I believe to be truest to his words – percentage of a team’s minutes given to first-, second- and third-year players.
The Lakers’ first-, second- and third-year players have played 51% of the team’s minutes. That’s fourth-most in the NBA:
Maybe LeBron meant among only competitive teams. But the team atop that list – Sacramento, which has given 65% of its minutes to first-, second- and third-year players – is directly ahead of the Lakers in the standings.
LeBron also refers to 16 teams, presumably teams in playoff position. That’d disqualify the Kings, who are ninth in the Western Conference despite having the NBA’s 14th-best record. But the Nuggets – who are second in the Western Conference – definitely qualify. And Denver is practically running neck and neck with the Lakers at 50% of its minutes going to first-, second- and third-year players.
So, LeBron is wrong.
But it’s understandable why he’s wrong. This is far outside his norm.
The 7,960 minutes the Lakers’ first-, second- and third-year players have played this season alone are already more than players so inexperienced played in LeBron’s entire four-year Heat tenure. Or his entire time back with the Cavaliers, also four years.
Here are the percentage of minutes by first-, second- and third-year players on LeBron’s teams:
The Kings and Nuggets have outperformed the Lakers despite relying about as much or more on young players. And those other teams don’t even have LeBron. Teams can win while leaning on such young players.
Maybe not with Los Angeles’ particular young players. They’re flawed.
But don’t rush to blame them. They generally outperformed the Lakers’ non-LeBron additions this season.
Those veterans – and Magic Johnson’s decisions to acquire them – are a bigger reason for the Lakers’ letdown. If LeBron is looking to explain what went wrong this season, that’d be a far better place to start.