It’s understandable that LeBron James would have mixed feelings about playing a career low in minutes to begin the season, but the rest hasn’t affected his eminence as the NBA’s undisputed best player.
James was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second time in November, the NBA announced Monday, and James has paced the league despite receiving more rest in games than he ever has in his career. James is averaging 35.5 minutes per game through the Heat’s first 17 games of the season.
That’s down nearly 2½ minutes from last season and his career average in minutes per game is 39.6. For Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the reduction in minutes per game has been even more drastic. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been preaching “sacrifice” to his players going on four seasons now, but this season he is pushing his stars to offer up even more in the name of team cohesion and a master plan aimed at staying fresh for the playoffs.
But it’s not always easy giving up minutes.
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“It doesn’t feel much of a difference to me,” said James before expressing a slight tinge of a contradiction. “I could play … it doesn’t matter. Obviously, it could probably help long term, but I don’t know. It’s just my career low.
“I didn’t think I would be in my career low numbers in my 11th year in the NBA, so I would love to play more, but we’re playing good basketball and that’s all that matters.”
James, in particular, is playing exceptionally well. The Heat (14-3) can extend its winning streak to 11 games Tuesday with a victory against the Detroit Pistons. James averaged 29.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.50 steals while shooting 60.3 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from three-point range and 86.8 percent from the foul line in Miami’s four victories last week.
And James put up those numbers while averaging just 36.6 minutes per game.
Spoelstra has settled on a substitution pattern that regularly includes 10 players. Last week, the rotation allowed James to rest in the beginning of the second and fourth quarters, and the down time apparently kept his legs fresh.
In the four second quarters last week, James was 11 of 14 from the field (80 percent) and 3 of 5 from three-point range while averaging seven minutes per quarter. In the fourth quarters of those games, James was 8 of 15 from the field (53.3 percent) and 2 of 4 from three-point range while averaging just 7.25 minutes per period. The lone statistical outlier from his stellar week was James’ 1 of 5 shooting effort in the fourth quarter against Cleveland.
“When you’re on the floor, you want to try to go,” James said.
James has complained of a sore back recently, but his average per game last week was actually up from the first three weeks of the season.
Spoelstra, who has clearer made it a priority to rest his stars early in the season, bristled at a question about whether or not he has thought about resting James.
“I’ve been resting him,” Spoelstra said. “He’s averaging a career low in minutes. If it ever gets to the point where he can’t go, we’ll make those decisions.”
Meanwhile, Wade and Bosh are also averaging career lows in minutes with Bosh joking that if, four years ago, he looked at his minutes to begin this season he would think “something is wrong. I’m hurt or something.”
Bosh is averaging just 28.4 minutes per game. That’s easy work for a salary that will pay him over $19 million this season. His career average in minutes per game is 36.2.
“It’s a slippery slope at times,” said Bosh, whose reduced minutes also have been affected by occasional foul trouble. “It can be very tough to manage, but … those five minutes extra a night, that adds up. It might make a difference later on in the postseason when we’re trying to get where we want to go.
“So, it could come down to rebounding or a loose ball, and if you have a little bit extra legs, then you can jump and go get it.”
At least that’s the theory.
Wade is averaging 33.7 minutes per game. His career average is 36.9. He said his reduced minutes have helped his “mindset” so far this season, by “knowing my sub pattern has changed this year compared to any other year. I normally used to play nine minutes in the first quarter. Now I’m playing five or six.”
“I know I’m coming out after that first timeout, so I can just blow it out and then get my second wind as I come back again at the end of the first quarter and play with that unit,” Wade said. “So, it has helped my mindset. It has changed the way I approach the game.”