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In 2015, in his fifth straight Finals appearance and sixth different time he had played from October until June, James logged 45.7 minutes per game while putting together what was easily the best individual Finals performance by a player on a losing team.
Six months from now, he’ll be asked to do the same – this time hopefully with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love around to provide support. That’s a long time from now, and considering that LeBron started the year admitting to fatigue and seemingly asking for a measured set of minutes this season, it seems reasonable that James would take in the occasional 31-minute game.
“Nah,” says the soon to-be 31-year old. From Joe Vardon at Cleveland.com:
"I'm not a 31-, 32-minute guy. That's just not, that ain't me," James said after practice on Thursday.
"I'm always kind of like in the middle," he continued. I'm not a guy who likes to sit. If we take care of business and we go out and we're able to beat up on a team and I can sit in the fourth, then I can. If not, then I need to play. If I'm in the lineup then I need to be out on the floor. And I'm not saying I have to be out there 48 minutes or 40 minutes. But I'm going to make an impact."
"I'm playing at a high level," James said. "I'm shooting the ball extremely well and I'm not hurting my team when I'm on the floor. If I'm hurting my team, then I should be sitting down. But I feel good.”
That’s fair, but “hurting” your team during a game in the second week in December isn’t the point here.
The reality is that the Cavaliers, somehow, should attempt to find a way around the possibility that LeBron James could hurt his team by being unable to play down the stretch of a game in the second week in June because of cramps. You can blame the faulty air conditioning for that one if you choose, but by the time next June’s Finals roll around LeBron will have played a whole heck of a lot of more minutes in the two years between trips.
James has sat just one game in 21 so far this season, co-incidentally against his former Miami Heat comrades, and he’s averaging one minute per contest (at 37 a game) more than he did last season. That 2014-15 campaign saw James, famously, vault past Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in terms of career minutes played just as he entered his 30s, re-directing the way NBA types think about minute allotment due to acting as one of just six remaining preps-to-pros players, and just one of two (thanks to crazy Byron Scott) playing major minutes.
LeBron didn’t exactly flip on his fatigue comments when he pointed out that he’d prefer to play all 82 games in 2015-16, but that goal (presuming it every should have been one) has already been shot to bits. That’s just fine, as the plan all along was for LBJ to go hard during the season’s first couple of months.
The team entered the year knowing that Irving could be out until 2016, and that Love would need time to slowly work his way back into developing rhythm, and that LeBron would have to be the leading force behind the figurative circling of the wagons. He’s done his part, at 26.5 points per game with a combined 13.4 rebounds/assists and combined two blocks/steals per game.
What’s more impressive are the extenuating circumstances. The Cavs play at the league’s third-slowest pace, which would seem to be less taxing on James. Love has returned as an early force, putting up some of the league’s best marks from the low post while contributing 18 points and 11 rebounds, playing in every game. Irving could return as early as Saturday, potentially three weeks ahead of schedule, and the Cavs will enter Friday’s game against Orlando with the East’s best record at 14-7.
Winning two-thirds of your games is always worth a pat on the back, but it still pales in comparison to Golden State’s sick and ridiculous 23-0 start, and San Antonio’s historical-level defensive and point-differential marks. This isn’t to say that the Warriors and Spurs aren’t holding May and June in any lesser esteem than the Cavaliers, but for Cleveland this was always going to be about showing your hand on the Finals’ stage, with home-court consideration in the Eastern Conference finals not even as paramount a concern.
LeBron is right, though. If he’s in for a penny, he’s in for a pound, and stylizing himself as a Tim Duncan-type at 31 minutes a game just doesn’t fly at this stage in the season.
How things will look in February and March, however, with his full retinue back and East challengers potentially in the rear-view mirror, is another question.
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