Despite the addition of Deron Williams, Wednesday night was business as usual for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron still played 40 minutes in a highly entertaining 103-99 loss to the Boston Celtics, and that’s a far bigger cause for concern in Cleveland than a midweek loss to a conference “rival” you’ll steamroll in the postseason. In fact, there’s one stat that should downright terrify the King and his Cavaliers.
After his 23rd game of 39 or more minutes this season, LeBron is in serious danger of surpassing 3,000 minutes played this season — and no player on a championship-winning team has eclipsed that mark since Ben Wallace helped the Detroit Pistons win the title in 2004 (via Basketball-Reference). At the very least, LeBron is all but guaranteed of playing his most minutes in a season since he left the Miami Heat and 200 more than last season’s 2,709.
Suffice it to say Big Ben didn’t carry quite the same load LeBron does for Cleveland, of course — and it gets worse. The last player to tally 3,000 or more minutes and reach the NBA Finals at all was … LeBron James in 2010-11, coincidentally enough. That’s the same year he completely ran out of gas against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, costing the Miami Heat their first championship and establishing an “unclutch” reputation LeBron has yet to shake in the eyes of some despite three subsequent titles.
To be fair, there’s nothing magically sinister about playing 3,000 minutes in the NBA. The Cavs’ title odds won’t drastically change if LeBron plays 2,999 minutes rather than 3,001. Yet it’s worth noting just how rare such a season would be these days. In that aforementioned 2004 campaign, 18 players surpassed 3,000 minutes. Last year, James Harden was the only person in the NBA to meet that mark, and no one at all played 3,000 minutes in 2014-15. The closer LeBron gets to that milestone, the bigger the risk he’s not himself by the time the Finals roll around — especially when you add in all the postseason minutes he’s played in six straight Finals appearances.
The NBA has become an increasingly complicated game on both ends of the floor, with constant motion, defensive switches that have to happen in the blink of an eye, and intricate schemes that allow the very best players to flourish. In turn, the modern NBA exhausts its superstars in a way that would destroy the Hall of Famers of yesteryear. Seriously, imagine Charles Barkley trying to chase Draymond Green around the court with rules that allow for freedom of movement and a league that no longer dumps the ball into the post and waits 12 seconds for someone to make a move to the basket or send a hard double-team.
And that’s why today’s players require so much rest — not because they’re delicate snowflakes. Do you really think someone like Gregg Popovich wants to play someone like Kawhi Leonard just 33 minutes per game because he hates fun? He’s doing it because he understands how the game has changed. He knows that to win championships, you have to pace your best players, lest they burn out in the postseason.
Getty Images/Stacy Revere
LeBron knows all that, too, which makes his decision — and don’t kid yourself, it is his decision — to play this much so mind-boggling. You can argue he merely wanted to send a message to Boston on Wednesday (likely true) or that Williams will take more of the burden off of the King as he acclimates to his new surroundings (also probably true), but LeBron’s performance didn’t come in a vacuum.
For now, pushing his body to the limits is the new normal for the best player in the world. Yet with the Warriors reeling and the Eastern Conference presenting nary a challenge, LeBron’s masochistic approach to this season might be the only thing that can prevent the Cavs from repeating.