LeBron James has played a lot of basketball in his 11-year career. Between those 11 seasons, a career’s worth of playoffs (including four straight trips to the Finals with the Miami Heat), and the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics with Team USA, the four-time MVP’s mileage far exceeds his years in the NBA.
That’s going to change, according to his new head coach in Cleveland, David Blatt.
“I don’t have a number but I am cognizant of the fact and we are conscious of the fact that, certainly early on 39 minutes a game is a lot,” Blatt said following practice Sunday. “We gotta keep our wits about us in terms of thinking long term with LeBron.”
Blatt is right: 39 minutes per game for the 29-year-old James is a lot. He’s been among the leaders in minutes played for most of his career. Last year with the Heat, he averaged 37.7 minutes per game, the sixth-most in the league. In 2012-13, he averaged 37.9 minutes, the eighth-highest total. In his initial seven-year stint with the Cavaliers before leaving for Miami, he exceeded 40 minutes per game in four different seasons, and 39 in two more. And that’s just regular-season minutes, before you even get to the playoffs, where James has played at least 40 minutes a game in all but the most recent of his nine career trips to the postseason.
In the past, James has played that many minutes out of necessity. None of his Cavaliers teams had much depth, and all four Heat teams dealt with injuries throughout his tenure there. Last season, he took on a heavy load while Dwyane Wade took frequent rest days in an attempt to keep him fresh for the playoffs. As the greatest player in the world in the prime of his career, and an overall physical freak, it was only logical that James played as many minutes as he could handle.
Now, though, as he prepares to hit his 30th birthday, his new team is wisely realizing that it needs to be more conservative. Blatt has already said that James will get more days off during the regular season (he’s never missed more than seven games in any year). Given how successful the San Antonio Spurs have been in extending the primes of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker by reducing their minutes and giving them days off, it’s not a surprise that the Cavs are following suit with James. They have the depth to allow it.
There are going to be nights where James doesn’t play, or doesn’t play that much. But if reducing his minutes from 38 to 32 extends his prime another couple of seasons, everybody wins.