In what seems to be a proverbial scale for the Miami Heat, one player seemingly returns from injury while another goes down. Just as Dwyane Wade looks to be returning to his old self—29 points, seven assists and one block against the Los Angeles Clippers on November 7—reports come that LeBron James is experiencing soreness in his back. The severity of the injury is unknown at this point, but should it be a cause of concern for Heat fans?
James seems superhuman on the court, muscling his way through just about any defense opponents can throw at him. His 6'8", 250-pound frame is well documented as being virtually impossible to stop, scoring more than 25 points per game and shooting above 50 percent in the past four seasons. He's on track thus far with 24.3 points and 56.4 percent shooting. But every superhero has his flaw and, for James, it may be his back.
Courtesy of ESPN.com's Michael Wallace, LeBron said this on the health of his back:
It's stiff, it hurts. I'll get more treatment today and see what happens. I plan on playing [Saturday]. If it gets worse, it would make more sense for me to sit out.
James also admitted to dealing with back problems since his third season in the NBA. It doesn't show given LeBron's track record of games played per season, as he's never missed more than seven games (2007-08 season) and no more than six in any other season. Most seasons James sits out the last two or three games to rest for the postseason, so the aforementioned numbers may be even less given that some games missed can be tabbed as "rest" rather than "injury".
Despite this, one can't help but be troubled by news that LeBron deals with back soreness to begin each season. That's all it's been reported as thus far, so there is truly no need to overreact and anticipate a doomsday apocalypse in which LeBron has his first career-threatening injury. For the sake of discussion, you could look to a player like Tracy McGrady as a worst-case scenario of what could possibly happen.
McGrady's injury history has been extensively documented, from knee surgeries to ankle sprains to back spasms. T-Mac's knees and back are what ultimately derailed his career, as he could never quite recover from either and return to form. He missed 35 games in the 2005-06 season with the Houston Rockets due to severe back spasms.
Per ESPN.com, the spasms hit McGrady on something as routine as a jump shot, but he had to be carried from the floor on a stretcher and taken to a hospital. As previously mentioned, James is nowhere near the same situation; however T-Mac's career was relatively close to where King James' is now.
McGrady arrived on the NBA scene right out of high school, drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors from Mount Zion Christian Academy. He was 18 years old on draft night, much like LeBron was when selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft.
It wasn't until the '05-06 season that McGrady's back really became an issue, but it was his ninth NBA season. After playing close to 40 minutes a night in the five prior seasons, averaging 27.6 points per game, McGrady's back was potentially affected by the wear and tear of the intense and rigorous scoring he was doing.
James is in the midst of his eleventh NBA season and has done more than what McGrady ever did on a nightly basis. He's averaging 39.7 minutes per game for his career thus far, and a 27.5 career scoring average, but has never exhibited any serious back concerns.
Again, the cause of concern might be overblown at this point. LeBron hasn't needed a stretcher or any implement to alleviate any spasms. He did don a heating pad when he subbed out of the game against the Clippers. However LeBron scored 35 points (along with eight rebounds and eight assists) versus the Toronto Raptors two nights earlier. Whether that led to him needing stretching by trainers on the bench on Thursday remains to be seen.
Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard went through back spasms in his last days as a member of the Orlando Magic which ultimately led to a herniated disk in his lower back requiring surgery. It began as mere spasms for Howard as well, and he tried to play through them. According to the Orlando Sentinel per ESPN.com, then-Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said:
He couldn't even sit on the bench comfortably at a timeout. He couldn't get loose. They were treating it all the time. ... But the price to him was that the spasms and everything have gotten worse. He did it at a personal price.
Howard and LeBron receive a similar amount of physical punishment due to their overwhelming athleticism and strong builds. Both work extremely hard for their teams, and Howard (another player right out of high school) was hit in his eighth NBA season by back spasms at age 26.
He's recovered relatively well from the surgery, considering the numbers he put up in his last season with Orlando (20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks) and his output with Houston thus far (17 points, 14.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks).
It might be malicious thinking on one hand, yet the trend of the injury is distinct for James, Howard and McGrady. The role of all three players, their age and experience in the league are all on track to where it became a disruption for the latter two. The back spasms might not be as severe for LeBron as they were for T-Mac or Howard, but it's only a matter of time before the early back soreness becomes a serious concern.
That isn't to say James' career is at stake due to the soreness, but it's worth discussing whether or not it becomes a problem down the track for the four-time Most Valuable Player. As seen with D12, a successful return can be made should it be a worst-case scenario. However, if his back isn't treated properly and rested enough, LeBron may very well have some injury demons in his basketball future.