LeBron James plays just 29 minutes in Lakers' season-opening loss by design in 'load management' workaround

The Lakers fell to the Denver Nuggets 119-107 on Tuesday night in their season opener

It seems the Los Angeles Lakers have found a new “load management” plan for LeBron James, and this one will get around the NBA's new rules.

James played just 29 minutes in the Lakers’ 119-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night in their season opener. While it’s just one game, that’s almost 10 minutes fewer than what James has averaged throughout his more than two decades in the league.

That, head coach Darvin Ham said after the game, was by design — and it may just be a trend that continues the rest of the season.

The NBA approved a new load management policy in September that is aimed at preventing teams from resting star players this season, which is something that has become an issue in recent years. If a team rests a designated “star player” in violation of the new rule, it can face fines starting at $100,000 and rising up to as much as $1 million for subsequent violations.

Star players are defined as any player who made the All-Star team or was named to the All-NBA team in the last three seasons — so that would include James. He is one of seven players in the league who qualified for an exemption, however, as he’s older than 35 and has played more than 34,000 regular-season minutes. In order to qualify for the NBA's season-long awards, though, James will have to play in at least 65 games.

The Lakers have rested the 38-year-old in certain situations on a semi-regular basis in recent seasons, and the reasoning makes sense. He’s been injured frequently since arriving in Los Angeles, and he’s nearing the end of his career. Keeping up with the younger league at the pace he’s been going at just isn’t feasible anymore, and they'd rather keep him as healthy as possible.

LeBron James entered his 21st season in the league averaging 38.1 minutes per game.
LeBron James entered his 21st season in the league averaging 38.1 minutes per game. (Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

But now with the new load management rules in place, the Lakers seem to have found a way to both protect James’ health and keep him on the court at the same time.

James still led the Lakers in his 29 minutes Tuesday night. He dropped a team-high 21 points and shot 10-of-16 from the field while adding eight rebounds and five assists. Though the Lakers cut the game back to just a single possession early in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets pushed ahead to take the 12-point win behind a triple-double from Nikola Jokić.

James has averaged 38.1 minutes per game throughout his career. He averaged a league-high 42.4 minutes per game during his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and has only dipped below 34 minutes per game once in his career. Dropping below 30 minutes per game consistently, while that’s still a respectable number, would be a big change.

But if it keeps James healthy and on the court for the entire season, and stops the Lakers from being fined, it may be the best path forward. Whether they can win that way, however, remains to be seen.