We thought the influx of youth – a waterbug All-Star at point, an all-around offensive demon to start the break at the four – could help. A legitimate center, with whom he’d once shared the court with. A top notch reserve big man, with whom he shares an agent with. All of his older, former teammates from the Miami Heat. An apology from the owner who once embarrassingly lashed out at him him. All pitched in an attempt to make things cushy for LeBron James.
Instead, James has flailed away, relatively speaking, in his first year back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not just because of the teammates or the rookie coach or injuries to others or his insistence on pacing himself in December in order to play in June.
No, here’s what did LeBron James in:
The 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Probably every other Cleveland Cavalier team.
The Miami Heat, 2010-2014. RIP.
James has looked hurt or listless or both all season, which is why the Cavaliers decided to shut him down on his 30th birthday; a co-incidental but no less intriguing bit of trivia. James returned to his team’s arena on Wednesday as his squad dropped yet another to theHouston Rockets, and spoke to the media about the pangs and pains that have plagued him all year.
"I haven't felt great all year," James said. "I've had spurts where one or two games I felt good, and after that, I was just pushing through it, just being the competitive guy I am and wanting to be out there for my teammates. I feel better right now than I [have] for the majority of the season."
"I just finally listened to my body, ultimately," James said. "I was affecting my game. And once I see my game being affected by my stubbornness, I had to just look myself in the mirror and understand I had to do something that was best for me as well. It was one of the hardest, one of the smartest, decisions I've made."
If you want to chalk this up to excuse making for (again, relatively) disappointing play, do your thing. You’d also have to take into account that LeBron James, who averaged 39.5 minutes per game as an 18 and 19-year old in his rookie year before leading the NBA in minutes the next season (and topping it with his 42.5 mark the season after that, though he finished second), is the oldest 30-year old in NBA history.
And, technically, he hasn’t even played an NBA game in his 30s, yet.
At the same age, LeBron James had played in nearly 10,600 more regular season and playoff minutes than Michael Jordan. James also played in one more Olympic run (and that’s counting Jordan’s 1984 turn with Team USA, when he wasn’t yet technically a pro), plus two more FIBA championships. Kobe Bryant, who did not take part in international ball until the month he turned 28 and didn’t even start at shooting guard until partway through his third season, is also in the running but not at James’ level.
James, who has never even played in a best-of five playoff series, has been through some stuff. And while he worked as Miami’s ostensible power forward for the bulk of his time with the Heat, he was still asked to match in equal parts the same slashing and driving that turned him into the league’s most feared player. His body shape and strength may rival that of Karl Malone’s, but it wasn’t as if James was jogging up court away from the ball each possession, waiting for John Stockton to call for a screen.
With an orthodox frontcourt of Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love presumably in place, James slimmed down before the season in order to take the pressure off of those legs, and it’s not helping. Back and knee woes, for regular humans, usually come when the human in question is either out of shape, when they suffered a distinct injury, or from overuse. James is not out of shape and he can’t point to one bad sprain, so one has to look at overuse. He had to carry terrible Cleveland teams in his first go-round, and in spite of the All-Star scent those Heat teams were terribly top-heavy.
He’s coming off of four straight Finals. The last team to do that, the 1983-1987 Boston Celtics, featured a star in Larry Bird that was completely out of whack with bone chips (again, overuse) in one of those Finals turns, and absolutely gassed in the last Finals appearance. Jordan, exhausted, retired after his first three and again after the next. A much younger Kobe kept on, but he was pretty awful in his last rounds of play in the 2003 Western Conference semis and 2004 Finals, even with Shaq at his side, after his three-peat.
James is going to take a little more time off. Kyrie Irving is getting healthier, the Cavs might decide to not ignore Kevin Love anymore, Iman Shumpert (when healthy) could help, Dion Waiters isn’t around to tick people off, and Timofey Mozgov can play. Cleveland doesn’t have a ton of room to make up in the East, but that was never the point – the idea was to get to the playoffs with LeBron brimming, and let him loose. They’ve got a lot of work to do.
Will he still be wincing in April? You can’t blame the guy if he is.
PHOTO: Getty Images