Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) LeBron James isn’t resting, and his Lakers aren’t losing. A lot of teams may have looked at the Lakers’ situation heading into Sunday night in Atlanta as the perfect chance to rest their star player: He had a sore elbow after a fall against Miami a couple of nights earlier, the Lakers are in the middle of 8-of-9 on the road (with tougher tests against Indiana and Milwaukee ahead), Los Angeles was facing a six-win team in Atlanta that is beatable without him, and the Lakers had a four-game lead in the West over the second-seed Clippers.
LeBron James played anyway.
It’s good for the Lakers he did because they needed his MVP-level performance — 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists — to get the victory on a night the Lakers were sloppy and just plain off: 5-of-31 shooting from three, and they turned the ball over on 20.8 percent of their possessions, more than one-in-five trips down the court. Los Angeles still won 101-96 in part because LeBron was making plays.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 16, 2019
After the game, LeBron again scoffed at the idea of “load management” games. From his postgame interview broadcast on Spectrum Sportsnet:
“Y’all want me to sit out? … But why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally. I mean, I don’t know how many games I got left in my career. I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game that are there to come see me play — and if I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation. My obligation is to play for my teammates and if I’m healthy, then I’m going to play. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy and it’s just simple.”
The eye test says LeBron does not need a rest — he is playing at levels this early in the season we haven’t seen since his Miami days. He’s averaging 26.1 points, 10.7 assists (a career-high), 7.3 rebounds, is shooting 36.5 percent from three, and most importantly coach Frank Vogel is keeping him at around 34 minutes a night (their stated goal for the season).
Plus LeBron is a competitor, he wants to be out there. He’s talked about this before. He’s not going to sit if healthy, at least until the Lakers have essentially locked up whatever playoff seed they ultimately end up with.
However, to quote Mark Cuban, “the dumb thing would be to ignore the science… We’re not going, ‘OK, let’s just mess with the league and our meal ticket to fans to do something just because it might be interesting.’”
The NBA is a recovery league. That’s the coach’s cliche (I first heard it from Brett Brown, but others say it) and it’s true. The wear-and-tear on bodies — LeBron has already run 62.5 miles on hardwood floors during NBA games this season — combined with the thrown-off sleep schedules makes players increasingly susceptible to injuries as the season grinds on. Teams use biometric trackers on players — constantly checking their speed, explosiveness and more — looking for the signs of exhaustion to rest players before they get injured. That’s the goal of load management, to keep guys on the court, healthy and fresh, especially for the postseason.
No player in the league is better conditioned, or as concerned with rest and recovery, as LeBron. He gets it. But none of the league’s 450 players are immune to the marathon grind of an NBA season, especially any players turning 35 at the end of the month. The Lakers and LeBron can call it an injury or whatever they want, but making sure LeBron is right before something goes wrong (like it did last Christmas day) is not a bad thing. It’s the smart thing. It’s a call the Lakers and LeBron need to make together, but with their eyes wide open.
For now, LeBron keeps on playing, and the Lakers keep on winning.
2) Luka Doncic is out for at least a couple of weeks in Dallas. Now what for the Mavericks? It was a fluke play, Luka Doncic was driving the lane against the Heat and stepped on the foot on foot of Kendrick Nunn, and Doncic’s ankle rolled.
*Not Highlight, Luka steps on Nunn's foot and hurts his ankle pic.twitter.com/Jfn1eQAuix
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) December 15, 2019
Doncic likely out for a couple of weeks at least with what team officials describe as a “moderate” ankle sprain. He could return just after Christmas, on the optimistic end of that timeline.
The bigger problem for 17-8 Dallas is the next four games on the schedule Doncic will miss: Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto. Four quality teams that would be difficult even with Dallas’ star player.
Dallas will not be the same in those games. In just his second season and at age 20, Doncic has exploded into crossover level NBA star with an MVP-level season: 30.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game. Doncic is as good as any pick-and-roll ball handler in the league (he shoots 12.4 times a game in that role and has a 60.7 eFG%) and is the engine for a Dallas offense that has been the best in the NBA this season.
Expect Rick Carlise to go with point guard by committee with a combination of Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, and J.J. Barea. Both Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway are going to need to up their scoring, while Dallas also will need improved defense. The goal is not to give up much ground, if any, in the fight for home court in the first round of the playoffs. How well the Mavs can play without their star may have a big role in where they start the postseason.
3) Big-name trade rumors update: The Thunder don’t expect to move Chris Paul, the Heat want to move on from Dion Waiters. Sunday marked the day that most players who signed a contract over the summer can be traded, and the rumors will be flying over the next week (especially with team executives all gathering in Las Vegas later in the week for the G-League showcase).
Here’s an update on a couple of big names.
There is “no belief” within the Thunder organization Chris Paul will get traded at the deadline, something ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Sunday on the network’s “Woj & Lowe: Trade Season Special.” And that confirms what we and everyone around the NBA have reported all season. Why can’t they trade him? I can give you 85.6 million reasons — that’s how much money CP3 is owed for the two seasons after this one. While Paul is playing well this season, there are just not teams with either the cap space or stomach to take on that massive contract. Not now, probably not this summer. Look for the Thunder to trade Danilo Gallinari and maybe Steven Adams.
Dion Waiters is not getting traded from Miami, either, but Waiters’ third suspension from the team this season “has left Miami determined to move on,” reports Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. That sounds great, but there is zero chance he gets traded, Waiters is owed the remainder of his $12.1 million this season (minus $1.4 million in fines) and $12.7 million next season, no team is taking that money for him, unless the Heat want to attach a first-round pick to him as a sweetener, which they do not. Miami may buy him out, but there is no reason for Waiters to give the team a discount on a buyout. One way or another, if Miami wants to move on it’s going to cost them.