Fans filling road arenas to see the traveling Miami Heat make their final regular-season rounds may not like it, but coach Erik Spoelstra is wise to squeeze every last bit of rest he can find before the postseason begins.
After all, as both critics and supporters were quick to point out during Miami's historic 27-game winning streak earlier this year, its lasting legacy will be defined only by playoff triumphs.
So Spoelstra's doing what any other sane coach would do at this point—resting his star players to give them the best chance of opening the postseason at full strength.
LeBron James has returned to action the last two games after sitting out the previous three to nurse a sore hamstring. But he's logged a much more reasonable 30 minutes a night in his last two outings after seeing more than 38 minutes in his first 72 games (via Basketball-Reference.com).
With that late-season hamstring ailment apparently under control, he's averaged 27.5 points on 69.7-percent shooting from the field since returning. James looks good to go for Miami's final five games.
But should Spoelstra consider benching his MVP leader for the final week? Or would he be creating some unnecessary vulnerability in doing so?
Well, it's complicated.
Reasons to Rest the King
If the Heat hadn't already established their dominance over the rest of the league in their prolonged success, Miami can officially claim the league's best record with one more win (or one more San Antonio Spurs loss). One win in its final five games would also give Miami sole possession of the best regular-season record in franchise history (via David J. Neal of The Miami Herald).
So it's not as if we're even talking about marginal gains at this point. The remainder of the schedule offers little benefit to the Heat.
Why risk James' health and Miami's chance to defend its title when there's no tangible reward at stake?
As it is, James has already seen the 10th-most minutes of any player in the league this season (via NBA.com). And that's coming on the heels of nearly 43 minutes a night in Miami's 23-game championship playoff run last season and subsequently helping guide Team USA to Olympic gold last summer.
If anyone deserves a break right now, it's James, regardless of the severity of that conveniently timed hamstring soreness.
Not to mention James' MVP-caliber effort this season has monopolized the playing time allotted for Miami's wings. Now is the time for Spoelstra to fine-tune his postseason rotation and take a longer look at players like Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and James Jones.
Miami's Big Three may have looked like they could orchestrate a championship run on their own on Tuesday night, but its Solid Nine will undoubtedly factor in a number of playoff games.
Reasons James Must Keep Playing
There's a fine line between buying players additional rest and disrupting a team's chemistry and flow.
And it appears as though Spoelstra's well aware of that fact, given that he started sitting his players weeks before the close of the regular season.
James has gotten whatever rest he's needed at this point. He's in unbelievable physical condition and more than capable of shouldering a less strenuous workload over the final week.
Spoelstra should limit his activity, as no other player in today's game impacts the performance of his team the same way that James does. But Spoelstra may be opening the door to some unnecessary rust by shutting James down for five straight games as we hit the home stretch.
Conclusion: Less Is More
Nothing would be worse than watching James take on the same heavy dosage of minutes in meaningless late-season games and suffer any kind of injury.
Even Heat haters should agree that this postseason needs a fully loaded Miami team to realize the promise that this incredible regular season has shown. Part of the thrill of a championship season is going toe-to-toe with the league's elite, and there is no team more deserving of that title than James' Heat.
Spoelstra's task for these final five outings will be to get enough out of James to keep this team rolling without exposing him to any unnecessary risks.
Clearly, there's no guarantee that James can avoid injury even with greatly diminished playing time.
But there's no guarantee that the Heat can flip the switch come playoff time if they back their way into basketball's biggest dance, either.
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