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LeBron James’ Workload Has Never Been So Light

LeBron James’ playoff workload has never been so low, which is great news for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Ben Dowsett

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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.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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