The Lakers beat a Pacers team missing Victor Oladipo, 104-96, on Thursday night, and LeBron James again led the way, dropping 38 points in as many minutes while sporting the best plus-minus (+19) on the squad. He also took 12 more shots than the next highest on the team, Brandon Ingram, and it's becoming clear this Lakers team with so many young starters, still needs him to play at an MVP level if they're going to survive a brutal conference and make the playoffs for the first time since Kobe Bryant still played defense.
How LeBron helps his young team's development while still trying to win is a balancing act he's struggled to maintain, as he told ESPN's Dave McMenamin after the game.
"That's the challenge of things I've been kind of battling with since the season started," James said. "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."
James chose to dominate in the final session on Thursday, by scoring 12 points down the stretch. The Lakers were coming off a two-game skid and a win kept them in the thick of a packed Western Conference playoff hunt with 15 teams in legit contention through the season's first quarter. As a microcosm for how the younger Lakers struggled, Lonzo Ball scored two points in 33 minutes of action to go along with four assists and the same number of turnovers and fouls. It's history repeating itself after LeBron dragged a dismal Cavs supporting cast to the Finals last season.
As McMenamin points out in his piece, the Lakers' president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, discussed this very issue on Sirius XM NBA Radio before the game. "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. LeBron reportedly expected things to shake out this way when he agreed to sign with the Lakers in July.
"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 [Ball] and 'Do [Rajon Rondo]," James said Thursday night. "BI [Brandon Ingram], Lance [Stephenson], Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] as well." Despite playing fewer minutes than he did last season with the Cavs, through Thursday night's game, James sports the exact same usage percentage as he did with last year's Cavs.
James says the balancing act is a "challenge," and an "adjustment," after playing with mostly veterans in Cleveland, but coach Luke Walton was a bit more optimistic saying after the game that the Lakers are "continuing to grow to where it's not just him all of the time." How much the players and coach expedite that growth probably determines their future when the NBA's trade deadline rears it's ugly head a week before February's all-star weekend.