LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game this year. He did this despite having played between 85 and 100 combined regular- and postseason games in each of the last 11 years, having playing in six straight NBA Finals, having assumed an outsized role in the single most significant turnaround in playoff history, and having carried arguably the heaviest workload his sport has ever seen into his 14th season.
He did this despite the presence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, because even with a pair or fellow All-Star talents and a handpicked supporting cast of veteran shooters on-board, whether the Cleveland Cavaliers live or die depends heavily — if not entirely — on whether LeBron’s on the floor.
This was true in the regular season, when the defending NBA champions outscored their opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with the King on the court, and got outscored by 8.5 points-per-100 with LeBron on the bench — in terms of point differential, roughly equivalent to the difference between playing like this year’s 61-21 San Antonio Spurs and the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks, who went 15-67. It held true in the opening round of the playoffs, when the Cavs outscored the Indiana Pacers by 28 points in the 175 minutes LeBron played, and got outscored by 12 in the 17 minutes he rested.
That’s why LeBron played a shade under 44 minutes per game in the opening round — without him, the Cavs couldn’t handle an outgunned Pacers squad featuring Paul George and basically nothing else — and that’s why the 32-year-old James will keep playing big minutes for as long as it takes. And his coach would appreciate it if you’d ease up off his back about it.
“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … ‘Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.” […]
“With him playing the minutes he played during course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”
Lue went so far as to say other teams “are suffering because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes,” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different [playoff] series.” […]
“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”
By running LeBron out there for all but four or five minutes a night, resting him only in short stints at the ends of the first and third quarters — and sometimes, not even then; James played the entire second half of Game 3 as he led Cleveland back from a 26-point deficit to seize control of the series — Lue ensures that his best facilitator and most versatile defender remains on the floor to activate any combination of supporting talent he can come up with.
Need rebounding and interior bulk? James plays the three alongside Love and Tristan Thompson. Need more shooting and size on the wing against opposing bench units? James slides to the point to make room for the likes of Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Kyle Korver. Need to go small to try to spread the other team out and run ’em off the floor? LeBron’s your center now.
LeBron’s the skeleton key to unlock every door the Cavs face; no coach in his right mind would just let that sit in his pocket. The concern is that someday — and, a league-leading workload at age 32 in Year 14, after nearly 50,000 NBA minutes, someday soon — the key will snap off in the lock.
Lue insists that the Cavs are mindful about not asking too much of James, but also that they’re not concerned that they are — especially when the payoff was a long layoff ahead of a second-round matchup with either the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks, who will play Game 6 of their first-round series in Wisconsin on Thursday night. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
“Of course, we’re always cognizant of LeBron’s minutes, but in looking at this situation, we didn’t look at the minutes as an issue,” Lue told ESPN. “It makes more sense to close out the series and have the additional rest versus playing potentially even more minutes, potentially 96-144 more minutes. Closing out and the rest that comes with it far outweighs the other potential scenario.” […]
“I think a lot of guys are capable of doing that,” Lue said when asked what percentage of players could play 40-plus minutes and not have a significant drop off in performance. “A lot of guys are taking care of their body. NBA players are some of the best-conditioned guys in athletics in their sport, so they can definitely do it. I think a lot of times coaches get sidetracked by what other guys, what the media said or whatever. But you just got to go off what you feel, how the guys feel, how the players feel and what your team needs at this time. So, if Bron plays 46 minutes and [Kyrie Irving] plays 45 minutes and we win, then it’s worth it. And if we need them to play that many minutes to win in the playoffs, then it’s absolutely worth it.”
The question’s not whether LeBron can handle Atlas-level responsibility on his shoulders; clearly, he can, as he showed in last year’s Finals. And nobody doubts Lue’s point that LeBron wants that responsibility; even in the context of occasional rests over the past couple of years, he’s made it clear that he doesn’t like limiting his minutes or sitting in a suit rather than suiting up. At issue is whether what’s best for the Cavs right now is what’s best for LeBron — and, by extension, for the franchise — in the long term.
James, for his part, shrugged off concerns about his playing time after knocking off the Pacers.
“The game plan is from the coaching staff,” James said after Game 4. “Coaches always ask me how I’m feeling throughout the game, and I feel great. If I’m out on the floor and I’m hurting us by playing a lot of minutes, then I need to come out. But in this series, I played a lot of minutes, and I felt great. I actually could have played the whole game if need be.”
Sure would be nice, though, if Lue, Kyrie, Love and the rest of the Cavs could figure out how to do enough when he’s sitting that he doesn’t have to.
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