LeBron James is starting to show mileage.
Don’t misconstrue that observation: If the entire NBA were re-drafted tomorrow, James would still be one of the first players chosen by any team looking to win a championship.
But having just turned 30, James has played more than 34,000 NBA minutes in slightly more than 11 seasons. That doesn’t include the offseasons he’s given up to be part of Team USA.
So he’ll miss a projected two weeks with knee and back injuries, including Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. Not coincidentally, I think, the Cavs lost their last two games to the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks in James’ absence.
The Cavaliers play a Hornets team missing center Al Jefferson. At 10-23, the Hornets are so depleted it might not matter that James is out.
At 18-14 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, the Cavs aren’t exactly what James signed up for when he departed the Miami Heat to return to his native Northeast Ohio in July.
This is not for a lack of talent. A team that includes point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love can be formidable, and Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are young support players who were chosen with lottery picks.
The Cavs essentially mimicked the Pat Riley model in Miami, assembling their version of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In fairness to the Cavs, the Heat didn’t immediately click upon assembling those pieces; at one point in the first season together, that Big Three had an 8-14 record.
James-Wade-Bosh did reach four NBA Finals, winning two against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. I’m not confident this Cavs bunch is equipped to duplicate that success.
To James’ credit, he provided himself choices should he decide this isn’t working. He can opt out next season on his contract (forfeiting about $21 million in guaranteed money) to go back into the free-agent market the summer of 2015. Or he could play out next season and still be a free agent in the summer of 2016.
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement lets superstars take very different strategies to managing their careers. Carmelo Anthony chose to maximize his earning power by re-signing with the New York Knicks, guaranteeing himself $124 million over five seasons.
Meanwhile Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki took less than market value to help their respective teams, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, surround them with contending talent.
I see James as somewhat the middle of those two approaches: He returned to the Cavs with the hope he could bring a championship to Cleveland and raise his children where he grew up. He structured his contract (two seasons, the second at his option) such that if things didn’t work out, he could move on.
The little time I’ve spent around James, I find him savvy and businesslike. He’s already fabulously wealthy, so he’s more concerned with his legacy than his net worth.
His option to leave means the onus is as much on the Cavs as on James to make this work quickly. That’s just smart because, again, this is about mileage.
James started playing NBA basketball straight out of high school. There are numerous 40-minute games on his resume when he simultaneously was his team’s best power forward defensively and point guard offensively.
Sooner or later that wears a man down. It once turned now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan into a minor-league baseball player, just to take a break from the NBA grind.
James is a long way from needing that sort of hiatus, but 12 seasons in, he’s closer to the end of his Hall of Fame career than the beginning, and it’s wise that he’s planning accordingly.