Luka Dončić has carried an immense workload up until now in his NBA career. He played an average of 36 minutes per game this season, and has often had the sole responsibility for the Dallas Mavericks offense, having to score 30, 40 and even 50 points to secure wins.
This seems unsustainable, and it is. Luka Dončić came into this season in great shape, but ended up getting injured, in part because of the workload.
But there is another player in the NBA who often plays more minutes (he averages 38 minutes), is older and is known to carry his team - and who has perfected his diet, physicality and habits to play longer and more efficiently than most. Luka Dončić could learn a lot from LA Lakers’ LeBron James about health and good habits, but one thing stands out.
As Brian Windhorst wrote in 2018: “James has perfected the art of resting while playing.”
“It’s a concept high-energy athletes such as boxers and swimmers have used for years: looking for moments in competition in which they can ease their load and allow for little scraps of rest they hope will add up. For James, this means finding times within games when he can catch his breath even when play is going on.”
As Luka Dončić matures and learns how to prioritize his time and energy better, he would benefit from taking notes on how LeBron paces himself. Because after this season it’s become clear that if Luka manages to waste less energy on unimportant things, it will make a huge difference.
“It’s just about growing, maturing and understanding that you play smarter,” James said. “It’s not like you’re out there and you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to get back on defense here. Not going to do this here.’ It’s just about picking your spots.”
Maturing and playing smarter. Whether you’re a fan of LeBron or not, you have to admit that the guy has this figured out. He’s 38 and keeping up with the young guys in the league. He manages his diet and workouts to prevent injuries and stay in shape.
And it really comes down to this: LeBron walks a lot on the court. In the 2018 playoffs, as Windhorst points out, he walked 78.7 percent of the time. You would never know it, because he’s not a slow player and he likes to play in transition. But when he doesn’t, he walks or stands. He walks the ball up, he walks to the other end of the floor during free throws. Like Luka, when Kyrie Irving had the ball the season (or the other way around), LeBron will also at times stand on the wing to take a breather. Here’s a funny example of LeBron choosing his battles:
As opposed to Luka and Kyrie Irving, who needed to get to know each other and politely tried to not be in the way, which meant they at times during this season stood in the corner to give the other room to iso, LeBron does it because he knows he needs to rest to have energy left over for later.
And that’s an important point. When you are aware of your own body, time and load management, you are able to make decisions that benefit you and the team in the longer run. It’s called pacing yourself, and all athletes would benefit from learning how to do it. Luka maybe more than most.
It does require that there is help to be had, however. As LeBron said:
“It helps having teammates out there who can take a few possessions for you offensively.”
Prioritizing is about efficiency. When you know what’s important, you also know what’s less important, and what is not important at all. LeBron is the master of deciding when it’s best to burn fuel to avoid getting tired.
This is similar to what we’ve seen Kyrie Irving do in Dallas. In most of his games, he has pushed the pace and taken over in the fourth. As the leading scorer in the fourth quarter in the league - a pivotal stage of the game - Kyrie knows how to pace himself and his play during the first three quarters. He has even said that he uses that time to watch if the opponent sticks to the game plan and see where they are mentally, so he’s prepared for the fourth. Watch him explain to Jeff Skin Wade how he prepares for the fourth:
"It's coming together fast. I think our Championship aspirations are really close; but honestly, we've got to take it one day at a time."— Bally Sports Southwest (@BallySportsSW) March 8, 2023
33 PTS tonight. 17 PTS in the FOURTH QUARTER. #MFFL | @dallasmavs on @BallySportsSW pic.twitter.com/XPk36GR9da
LeBron James uses the same approach:
“It’s just trying to save pockets of energy throughout, especially the second half, when I know it’s going to be a possession game,” James said. “I try to save pockets of energy when I know I’m going to be needed [later].”
When you figure out how to prioritize your time and your energy, both physically and mentally, you know where your focus should be. This goes for basketball, as it goes for life. Find out what’s important and what’s not, and keep that in mind when the going gets tough.
If Luka Dončić would find inspiration in how the Lakers star prioritizes and paces himself, it could be exactly what’s needed to reach that next level for the Dallas Mavericks front man.