Most of us wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if it involved burning the raw energy necessary to play one minute of basketball in LeBron James’ body. Every step in his 6’8, 250-pound frame is that much heavier and burns that many more calories. Fueling this human fighter jet is just a different operation altogether than the typical recovery process for virtually any other athlete in the world, much less the average person.
It hasn’t been easy during King James’ run of five straight NBA Finals appearances, and a few instances where the tank has come dangerously close to empty have been notable. Dehydration cramps have been a recurring issue on the game’s biggest stage, from his one-legged heroics against the Thunder during his first title win in Miami to a Game 1 in San Antonio marred by a malfunctioning AC and the resulting cramps that kept him out of a pivotal fourth-quarter collapse.
Amid a 2014-15 playoff run that saw both of his star-level teammates go down en route to the Finals and place another mountainous burden on James’ back, a CBS feature detailed the ridiculous lengths to which LeBron and his trainers went to help his body recover. They utilized every conceivable minute between games with intense and often painful protocols, all in an effort to stave off the natural limits of even the most special human bodies. The burden was too great in the end, the opponent too skilled and deep.
It’s all been different this time around – and for more than just the obvious reasons.
Broad indicators paint a pretty clear picture of a guy facing fewer demands to this point than in virtually any postseason in his career. LeBron’s minutes are down below the 38 per game threshold, the first time that’s happened in his 11 playoff appearances and just the second time he’s been under 41 nightly. He’s using under 30 percent of team possessions while on the floor, a big departure from the ludicrous 37.6 percent he carried through the 2014-15 playoffs.
He’s also on schedule to appear in his fewest overall games in a Finals run – even if the Cavs drop one game to an overmatched Raptors team before advancing, mowing down the East will never have been such quick work for LeBron. The benefits to his between-game recovery process are obvious; by the time they see a Western Conference opponent, James will likely have spent three full, separate weeks resting from NBA game action.
Playing next to a capable and healthy supporting cast plays a big role. LeBron’s own playoff efficiency has dipped since returning to Cleveland, but where last year this was a natural result of his ridiculous workload and changing emphasis, this year it’s a result of a more organic team approach – and there’s an argument to be made that James has never had so much support behind him while chasing a ring.
It’s a rough proxy, but a glance at teammate efficiency and usage supports this line of thought. LeBron has three different teammates (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Channing Frye) sitting over the 20 PER threshold (a general line above which a majority of consensus star-level players tend to occupy) this postseason. Even with a supposedly star-studded cast in Miami, that total was never higher than one.
They’re playing big roles, too. Love’s usage is way up from his regular season totals, and Irving is attempting more shots on a per-minute basis than James to this point. Both Irving and Love sit in the NBA’s all-time top-10 for playoff three-point accuracy as of this writing, a small-sample phenomenon that nonetheless helps illustrate how efficient they’ve been in a year that makes up the bulk of the career postseason minutes for both.
The trickle down is an in-game comfort level from James rarely seen at this time of year, something coach Ty Lue recently commented on explicitly. He’s been able to streamline his game to the more efficient areas minus any burden to take forced shots – just short of 75 percent of his field goal attempts this postseason have come either within three feet of the rim or from beyond the arc, most in his career by a wide margin. He’s never attempted so few mid-range jumpers over the course of a full regular season or postseason.
A higher percentage of LeBron’s shots are being taken “open” or “wide open” compared with last year’s playoffs, per SportVU tracking data, a more impressive feat than it seems on the surface given his shot selection. Attempts at the rim are marked “contested” far more often than any other location on the floor (many layups or even dunks we’d think of as “uncontested” still take place while a defender is within four feet, and are therefore tracked as such by SportVU even if the defender has no actual chance at altering the shot) – it speaks to the ease with which he’s finding his routes that his open percentage is higher while half his shots are coming at the hoop.
James is running fewer average miles per game, per SportVU, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. His time of possession has nearly been cut in half, from over nine minutes a game last year to barely five, and the ball is leaving his hands more quickly when he does possess it. LeBron’s average touch time is down under four seconds after sitting well over five throughout the 2015 postseason. His burden here is markedly less than in his final Miami season, the first for which these SportVU stats are available.
Driving to the hoop is among the more laborious actions in NBA basketball, particularly for a freight train like James who often takes heavy contact, and he’s also been able to manage what was a staggering volume here last year. He was driving the ball a ludicrous 17 times per game last postseason, over double his regular season output (only a handful of players crack double figures here each season), but has tamed that figure back to just 8.4 this time around. He’s scoring at roughly 150 percent of last year’s rate in transition, typically a less taxing way to manufacture points.
Things are sure to change in the Finals, and exactly how much the lessened workload to this point will benefit James and the Cavaliers once the level of competition rises sharply is tough to gauge. Cleveland got over a week off between the Eastern Conference Finals and their eventual loss to Golden State last year, and had similar breaks in between earlier series. Will the simultaneous reduction in LeBron’s nightly burden make a big difference? It’s tough to say.
Easier to assume with confidence are the benefits of a more complete supporting cast, both from a health and chemistry standpoint. Irving and Love make things easier on LeBron, as does the presence of another big floor spacer in Frye. Matthew Dellavedova, who also dealt with fatigue issues so serious he was hospitalized during the 2015 Finals, can forget about any additional offensive burden and focus on his high-energy supplementary game.
The tanks are full for LeBron and his running mates, and a James-led team is carrying more momentum than ever into the late rounds.
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