The Lakers announced this weekend that James would be held out of the final six games to allow his strained left groin to fully heal.
“He wants to play,” Walton said, ahead of the Lakers 130-102 road win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday. “My understanding from the medical staff, they finally said, ‘Look, it’s just not worth it anymore. Let’s make sure you have a healthy summer.’ So that’s the decision that was made, and we’ll move forward without him on the floor for the final six.”
James, 34, finished the season averaging 27.4 points (tied for fifth in the NBA), 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists (third) in 55 games. The Lakers failed to qualify for the playoffs for a franchise-record sixth consecutive season, snapping James’ personal streaks of 13 straight postseason appearances and eight straight NBA Finals berths.
L.A.’s postseason hopes were officially dashed with a 111-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on March 22, with 10 games left in the season. James played in three of the Lakers’ next four games after that — all victories — before the decision was made to shut him down.
Why wasn’t that decision made sooner?
“Well, I think that goes back to him wanting to compete,” Walton said. “Even though it’s over, he wants to be out there playing with his guys. Eventually, as that time goes on and on, it’s easier to tell someone like that, ‘Let’s take care of your health right now.’ So that’s kind of how the decision came.”
James suffered a slight tear in his left groin on Christmas Day, causing him to miss the Lakers’ next 17 games — making it the most significant injury of his 16-year career. Walton said that when James has sat out games for what the team has termed “load management” since returning from the groin injury, he uses the time to receive treatment “two or three times a day” from the Lakers’ medical staff.
“He’s going to be in the weight room working out. He’s going to do everything he can to take care of himself and his body,” Walton said, looking ahead to James’ schedule over the final week and a half of the season when he’s not on the court.
James joined the Lakers on their final road trip of the season, a two-game jaunt through New Orleans and Oklahoma City, even though he isn’t playing. Walton said it is meaningful to have James’ presence with the team.
“I think it’s good for the guys,” Walton said. “You know part of going into this season was, ‘Look, we’re putting you with a lot of young players. There’s a lot of new guys, as far as the free agents coming in and whatnot.’ So the more time that, ideally they’d spend together on the floor would be beneficial, but any time they can get together off the floor I think helps for down the road as well.”
To Walton’s point, James sat on an athletic ball in the visitor’s locker room at Smoothie King Center on Sunday watching the NCAA tournament with his teammates and bantering about the Duke-Michigan State game.
“They’ve got them dogs,” said Kyle Kuzma, a native of Flint, Michigan, rooting for the Spartans.
A couple of plays later, Duke’s Zion Williamson dunked the ball after an impressive drop step.
“Dog that,” said James, who roots for Duke because its coach, Mike Krzyzewski, coached him with USA Basketball.
James was not made available by the Lakers to speak to the media about the decision to sit out.
Walton said that the final stretch of the season will be difficult without James, but will present an opportunity for the rest of his young team.
“It’s going to make it a challenge, but you know, it can be exciting if guys step up,” he said. “This group, it’s been fun, for where we’re at, it’s been fun to coach this group lately, and the way they’ve been playing out there. LeBron’s been a key part of that. We’ll have to figure some things out differently, but again, everyone’s getting a chance to play and try to help us win some more games.”