LeBron James is a genetic freak. A titan. A colossus. He sometimes seems invulnerable to the plights of normal humans and has never faced a significant injury as a pro. However, as the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals last year, he looked very mortal.
The largest flaw in his game as the Heat fell apart was clearly his inability to exert his will throughout the last two games of the series. This, most have argued, was more of a mental failing than a physical one. While it has been over-hyped, it is a fair criticism.
But the fact remains that James was surely physically fatigued.
No one who plays 922 minutes over 21 playoff games, as he did in the 2011 postseason, can be well rested. With that total, LeBron led the NBA in playoff minutes last season, averaging 43.9 minutes per game. This number — perhaps not so coincidentally — is the most minutes any player who has made the second round has averaged since LeBron played 44.7 mpg over 21 games for the Cavaliers in 2007. For those who don’t remember, that was the other year James lost in the NBA Finals.
This year’s Heat don’t rely on LeBron playing great basketball nearly as much as that Cleveland team did. With better role players, they likely don’t even rely on him as much as last year’s Heat did. But especially since Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal injury in the first half of Game 1 against Indiana, Miami has needed LeBron more than ever. By and large, he has delivered. However, the team’s successful vanquishing of the Pacers and strong start against the Celtics may have come with some collateral damage: LeBron has been forced to play more than 43 minutes in 8 of the Heat’s last 11 games. Their relatively competition-free series against the Knicks means that he is averaging “only” 41.9 mpg for their entire playoffs, and this is indeed a significant drop from last season.
But it remains a troubling sum if you compare it to recent the recent playing time trend for NBA champions.
Consider the following:
- With 41.9 mpg, LeBron is currently second in the NBA during the 2012 playoffs. (Only Rajon Rondo, with 42.8 mpg, has played more.)
- Since 2002, no player who has finished in the top ten in playoff mpg has won a title. (A 23-year-old Kobe was sixth in the league with 43.8 mpg over 19 games as the Lakers walked over everyone but the Kings on the way to their third straight title)
- Since 2003, no player has won a title while playing 42+ mpg. (A 26-year-old Tim Duncan won his second title playing 42.5 mpg)
- Since 2006, no player has won a title while playing 41+ mpg. (A 24-year-old Dwyane Wade played 41.7 mpg over 23 games on his way to Miami’s only title)
This eight-year gap in any player winning a title while playing 42 mpg could just be happenstance. Somebody has to break that streak. And when you look at LeBron, he looks like a man who could do it. In the middle of Miami’s second-round series against Indiana, Pacers coach Frank Vogel expressed as much on 1070 The Fan radio in Indiana when asked whether or not he would try to incorporate tuckering out LeBron and Dwyane Wade into his game plan plan. “You look at those two guys play and the thought of actually doing anything that could fatigue them is a little bit comical,” said Vogel. “They’re almost superhuman with their body types and their athleticism. They just seem like they could play the game forever.”
Then again, this current streak might be a reflection of how the game, rather than the players, has changed.
- While no players have finished in the top 10 in playoff minutes per game while winning a title since 2002, it happened a whopping 24 times between 1980 and 2002.
- While only Wade has won a title while playing 41+ mpg since 2003, it happened 19 times between 1980 and 2003.
This begs an obvious question: if Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were able to win titles while playing more than 41 mpg, why can’t today’s players?
The first possible reason is obvious: more games.
When Larry Bird averaged 44.1 mpg on his way to a title in 1981 (the most any NBA champ has played since 1980), he only did so for 17 games. Cumulatively, he played just 750 total minutes that year. Similarly, when Magic played 41.1 mpg in 1980, he played just 658 total minutes in the postseason. By comparison, if LeBron (who has played 670.5 minutes already in the 2012 playoffs) and Rondo (725.8) are to win a title this year, they will likely eclipse Bird’s minute total by some 200 minutes.
But there have been a few guys that have played both a huge number of postseason games and postseason minutes per game on their way to a ring. Hakeem Olajuwon did it twice, for example, playing 929 minutes over 22 games (42.4 mpg) in 1995 and 989 minutes over 23 games (43.0 mpg) in 1994. Even more impressively, Shaq and Duncan are the two guys who have ever reached 1,000 playoff minutes while winning a title. O’Neal played exactly 1,000 over 23 games (43.5 mpg) in 2000, and all-time leader Duncan played 1,021 over 24 games (43.1 mpg) in 1999.
That really wasn’t that long ago. So what gives? Why the big drought ever since?
The so-called “handcheck rule” may be at the root of things. Henry Abbott of ESPN’s TrueHoop, who found that guys who play high regular-season minutes also never win titles anymore, explained the change in a post earlier this season.
A new standard was pushed internally by the directors of officiating Ed Rush, and later Ronnie Nunn: contact that affected an offensive player’s “speed, rhythm, balance or quickness,” explains NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, “would be evaluated as being illegal, and not marginal.”
This was not just about hands, either. Especially since the summer of 2004, when the freedom of movement initiative was re-emphasized to referees, that standard has been interpreted to mean any contact that upsets speed, rhythm, balance or quickness can be whistled for a foul.
This has forced NBA teams to play a new brand of defense. Stopping other teams from scoring is now more about positioning, rotating and precision than brute force. Since 2004, defenders have been unable to get away with using their strength. They have been forced to move their feet and — even more so — recall their rotations and react to ball movement. The result can be called the “Thibodeau Response.” More than anyone else, he is the one, first with the Celtics and now with the Bulls, who has pushed the league into an era of defense in which rotations must be crisp and the team strategy is such that a breakdown by any one player will permit the offense an excellent shot. Often, a dunk.
In the 1980s, defense was much more predicated on “you stop your guy, I’ll stop mine.” Being tired certainly hurts an individual player’s ability to keep his man from scoring. But it doesn’t lead to a total team defensive breakdown.
David Thorpe, a player trainer and ESPN analyst, expressed as much in Abbott’s piece.
“Being an NBA player is far more work now. Tom Thibodeau is the guy who figured out how to take advantage of the new rules. And watch his teams. The minutes now are so much more intense. There is movement all the time, unless you’re guarding isolation, which is rare. And it’s movement towards action. There’s more contact. There’s more mental fatigue. There’s more to do. Ask coaches who were in the league before and after, like Rick Adelman or Pat Riley. They’ll tell you. There’s just so much more to defense these days.”
Who knows whether this is the sole reason why it has been so long since an NBA champion has played extraordinary minutes each game throughout the playoffs. But we do know this: A NBA champion has played 41+ mpg and 900+ total minutes in the playoffs only seven times since 1980. But it has happened just once since the defensive rules were adjusted in 2004.
Miami can take some solace in the fact that it was a Heat player who has did it. Dwyane Wade accomplished the feat in 2006. Unfortunately, it is not Wade who they need to do yeoman’s work.
It’s the guy who has already lost twice in the Finals while trying to do so.