In the 13th season of his career, LeBron James is at a new and interesting juncture.
His team, for the first time in a long time, isn’t the favourite to win the championship. He’s arguably no longer the best player in basketball. With over 36,000 minutes logged in his career, pacing has become more important than ever.
Yet through 18 games this season, James is sending mixed signals, and he looks like a player figuring out the best method of getting back to the Finals.
At times, James has shown awareness of this relatively new stage of his career. He’s made a point of propping up his teammates as important pieces of the puzzle, particularly Kevin Love, who he’s claimed to hand the offence to.
“I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus,” James said at the beginning of the season. “He’s going to have a hell of a season. He’s going to get back to that All-Star status. He’s the focal point of us offensively.”
Compare this to when he joined the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two superstars, had to take a backseat to LeBron, because it was simply the best option for success.
Prior to the season, LeBron also said that letting Love and Kyrie Irving play bigger parts in the offence would let him play fewer minutes. With a nagging back that’s required anti-inflammatory shots and weeks off, James would need the time off if he hopes to be healthy when the playoffs begin. As ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh writes, that 36,000-minute mark has proven to be a slippery slope for players as their bodies start to break down.
However, some of James’ actions this season don’t reflect an understanding of the need to pace himself. Similarly, one doesn’t get the sense that LeBron is particularly relaxed about his status and the Cavs’ place on the NBA food chain.
Some of James’ comments after losses reflect this intensity. As Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group notes, James said the Cavs’ give “half-arse” efforts after they lost a double overtime game on the second night of a back-to-back against the Bucks. He’s ripped the team’s intensity, calling them entitled and saying they’re not as hungry as the Warriors, despite losing to them in the Finals last year.
The Warriors, in particular seem to be a thorn in James’ side.
In a profile of LeBron from SI’s Lee Jenkins, the Warriors are painted as something LeBron is chasing. Jenkins describes a scene in which James couldn’t sleep and then watched the Warriors dismantle the Raptors until 3 a.m., jealous of the joy and energy with which they play. When LeBron, unprovoked, brought up the Warriors’ least favourite critique, their team health, saying they’d be more impressive if they were winning without Stephen Curry, it seemed like a measured comment.
As Jenkins notes, James plays with rage this season, and the Cavs are not a particularly joyous team, despite their 13-5 record. LeBron has been notably harsh to center Timofey Mozgov; he marched off the court after a teammate’s turnover — while the ball was still in play; he cut down on pregame handshakes to ensure the team is professional and ready to play. LeBron told Jenkins that he’s working on controlling his “competitive emotions.”
Cavs GM David Griffin told Jenkins:
“Guys like [LeBron]. He’s one of them in almost every way. But when he’s in the heat of competition, there’s no one like him. He is a very intense human being. He’s unrelenting. It’s not acceptable to blow an assignment. He’ll let you know. And then he’ll be playing cards with you again on the plane.”
On the court, LeBron doesn’t necessarily back the idea that he’s taking a more steady approach. Though he has indeed given Kevin Love more responsibility (and Love looks like an All-Star again), James is still pushing 37 minutes per game while averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and six assists per game. His usage rate is 32.3%, identical to last year and his highest since the 2009-10 season.
Furthermore, LeBron’s approach to games seems to be antithetical to the idea that he’ll have to pace himself. As opposed to someone like Curry, who’s leading the NBA in scoring through three quarters, LeBron is only 12th on the list.
Conversely, he’s first overall in fourth-quarter scoring while playing a team-leading 166 fourth-quarter minutes. For a player who’s said he won’t need to carry the load so much this year, he’s pacing himself through three quarters, then exploding in the fourth, causing him to play heavy minutes. No other player from the 2003 draft class has played more minutes per game than LeBron.
Entering the season, LeBron admitted he wasn’t fully recovered from last year’s marathon:
LeBron James: I could definitely use a couple more months off.
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) September 28, 2015
Yet he admitted to Jenkins that he’s not totally sure how to manage his minutes: “If I’m able to link up with [Greg Popovich] in the afterlife, we can sit down and drink some wine and I can ask him how to pace. The Spurs know how to pace perfection. I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Weighing on James perhaps more than ever is the pressure to bring a championship to his hometown, which David Griffin said LeBron is “consumed by.”
Watching James navigate this new stage of his career is a fascinating study into watching the most dominant player in the NBA measure how hard to press the gas pedal. This season, LeBron seems equal parts a player realising his own mortality for the first time and a player who, in all likelihood, still has the heaviest impact on the championship race. Yes, Steph Curry has been the best player in basketball, the Warriors are the best team and the favourites, but a team with LeBron will never fully out of the running.
The common metaphor for the NBA is “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” How LeBron balances the need to sprint versus the need to pace himself could be the determining factor in how willing he is to embrace this new stage.
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