David Blatt and the Cleveland Cavaliers came into their 2015-16 campaign intending to lessen the weight on LeBron James’ shoulders. After all, James was entering his 13th pro season and was just a few months removed from averaging 45.8 minutes per game in a six-game series against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. On top of that, James was hampered throughout training camp and the preseason with a back injury that required an anti-inflammatory injection.
At first, it seemed like extended rest was a concept James would be on board with. Prior to the start of camp, he expressed regret over pushing himself too hard during the offseason (per ProBasketballTalk.com).
“I feel just as healthy as I did my rookie year – nah, absolutely no. I could definitely use a couple more months off. But it is what is. I’m ready to go. I will be on the floor tomorrow at the start of training camp. I got a little bit crazy with my workout regiment in September. I was doing three-a-days five days week. So, I believe I improved. Did I get enough rest? I don’t think so, but I definitely improved.”
James went on to say having fellow stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving around would allow him to rest more, and that he might talk to head coach Blatt about a proper gameplan (per Ohio.com).
“I think that’s a coach-Blatt-and-myself conversation, we haven’t quite got there yet. I’m very hard-headed because I love to play so much. But I think what we have, I don’t need to be as hard-headed. I’m going to be very smart with how many minutes I play per game and what I’m doing out there on the floor. I think we have enough pieces and I think Kevin Love will allow me to sit a lot this year just because of his abilities, what he’s able to do, Kyrie (Irving) as well, so I won’t have to worry about playing big minutes.”
However, less than two months into the new season, James is backtracking on his preseason comments, via Cleveland.com.
“I’m not a 31-32-minute guy,” James said prior to the team’s Dec. 11 clash with the Orlando Magic. “That’s just not, that ain’t me.”
You can’t fault the Cavs for taking a cautious approach with its franchise player. Injuries derailed a potential championship run last year as well as played a huge role in the first 22 games of this season. The club is still missing Irving, who underwent knee surgery in June, and just recently got swingman Iman Shumpert back after he was sidelined with a wrist injury. Cleveland also went a few games without top rim-protector Timofey Mozgov and shooter J.R. Smith.
While the Cavs have been trying to rest James when they can, such as sitting him in a loss to the Miami Heat and utilizing him for a season-low 29 minutes in a blowout win over the Magic, the lack of able bodies have thrown a wrench in that plan. In his last four games, James is averaging 37.8 minutes per game, including playing 45 minutes in an OT loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in which the four-time MVP had to carry the Cavs at both ends throughout the fourth quarter just to force free basketball.
Recently, Blatt explained struggling to keep his star player on the bench.
“I couldn’t have dragged him out of there with a crane. It wasn’t even easy to drag him out of the Miami game, and he didn’t even dress. When that happens, you just have to grin and bear it .”
Blatt’s inability to control James could be a potential obstacle for the Cavaliers going forward. James ranks fifth in the NBA with a usage rate of 32.9 percent. Also, as ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh recently pointed out, James (who will turn 31 at the end of the month) has already played more minutes than anybody his age in league history. He is also the oldest of the top 19 qualified players on the NBA’s minutes per game leaderboard.
Oddly enough, James’ 36.8 minutes per game is the second-lowest output of his career. That hasn’t stopped him from posting a stat line of 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.4 steals. Additionally, he’s shooting 50.1 percent from the field despite attempting 19.9 field goals per contest, his highest effort since the 2009-10 season. The Cavs also sit atop the Eastern Conference and hold the third-best record in basketball at 15-7. If not for Stephen Curry’s dominance this season, James would be at the forefront of the MVP discussion.
Still, with Cleveland’s championship window closing with each passing year, it’s important that Blatt and James get on the same page. While James might appear superhuman at times, the heavy workload is bound to catch up to him. As the team gets closer to full strength, it would be wise to put a plan in place that keeps its star player fresh for when the games matter most.