Father Time is undefeated, but LeBron James is giving him a good run.
The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar is 15 seasons into his NBA career, and he’s leading the league in minutes per game for the second straight season. Most everyone believes there’s a tipping point, whether this season or next or sometime on down the line, and playing so many minutes so often so early every season will only get him there faster, if and when the downslope of his career ever comes.
Count Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green in that camp. “Yeah, he’s superhuman, but eventually his superhuman powers go away,” said Green, who’s faced LeBron each of the past three years in the Finals, “so that would be more of my concern if I’m a Cavs fan or somebody with the Cavs or a player … like, ‘Man, he’s been playing a lot of 40-minute (nights) and it’s only November 12.”
Why not protect LeBron and preserve your best asset as long as you can? That’s not Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue’s mentality. He thinks more along the lines of Ferris Bueller than Cameron Frye’s dad: If you’ve got a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider in the garage, you ride that sucker all damn day.
“Yeah, I hear about that all the time, but I played with Michael Jordan when he was 39, and he played 37 minutes a night,” Lue told reporters in Detroit on Monday, per Cleveland.com. “Karl Malone was 37, played 38 minutes a night. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe. Everybody’s built different. If you’re one of the greats, sometimes you’ve got to play, sometimes you get rest like tonight.”
LeBron entered the NBA at age 18, at least three years before all those aforementioned legends, save for Bryant. So, while he “only” turns 33 years old on December 30, he’s played 51,043 career minutes between the regular season and playoffs. His run of seven straight Finals appearances has put the equivalent of two extra regular seasons on his treads, and at his current pace, he will move into the top-20 all-time in minutes before the regular season is through. James already passed Jordan in minutes last year, when he eclipsed the 40,000-minute plateau for career regular-season playing time.
Jordan passed 40,000 minutes during the 2002-03 season, when, yes, as Lue’s teammate, he played all 82 games and averaged 37 minutes a night at the age of 39. He was also coming off three years of rest in retirement, shot worse than 30 percent from 3-point range and posted the worst player efficiency rating of his career. And their Washington Wizards missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Jordan retired that next summer. Isn’t there at least a chance he could have benefited from fewer minutes?
Abdul-Jabbar never averaged more than 33 minutes a night after eclipsing 40,000 minutes, and, perhaps as a result, played seven additional seasons before retiring at 41 years old, which is maybe the best argument against playing LeBron a league-high 38 minutes per game for another year.
Magic stopped playing at age 31 after his HIV diagnosis, returned at age 36 to average 30 minutes a night over 32 games, and then retired again with 10,000 fewer minutes on his legs than LeBron.
Like LeBron, Kobe played his first post 40,000-minute season at age 33. He averaged 38.5 minutes a night during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, suffering a shin injury that cost him two weeks at the tail end of the season. The next year, he averaged 39 minutes before tearing his Achilles in the third-to-last game of the season. He returned in December 2013, played six games, and then suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was never the same again over two more injury-plagued seasons.
“It was an overload,” then-Lakers coach Byron Scott said of playing a 35-year-old Bryant 35 minutes per game in January 2015. “I should have figured out that it was going to take a little time, but watching his workouts and what great shape he was in, I think I got a little too confident. I was wrong.”
So, maybe those aren’t the best comparisons, either.
Malone is the only true facsimile. After passing the 40,000-minute milestone, Malone continued to play between 36 and 38 minutes over 80 or more games for another four seasons. To a large degree, he was the same productive player he’d always been for the Utah Jazz until age 39. It wasn’t until his age 40 season that knee problems cut his lone Lakers season in half and ultimately ended his career.
But it’s probably not to point to the one case in which trotting out a perennial All-Star in his mid-30s for almost 40 minutes a night didn’t have horrific consequences as proof that the greats can assume heavy minutes loads without repercussion. Even LeBron seems to understand that on some level.
“Draymond’s right,” James told Cleveland.com. “We want to get those minutes down for sure. But as of right now, we’ve had two point guards out and we’ve had some different lineup changes, so, I’ve had to play more minutes than I would like, and more minutes than my teammates would like me to have.”
The only person besides Lue advocating for LeBron’s league-high minutes, it seems, is Father Time.
– – – – – – –