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What If LeBron James Runs out of Gas in the Playoffs?

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 02:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at American Airlines Arena on April 2, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

Whenever things have looked grim during the Miami Heat's Big Three era, they've been able to rely on LeBron James, the one unshakable pillar steadying their organization with his singular greatness.

But what if years of propping up the franchise are finally starting to wear on King James? What if the demands of an otherwise injury-plagued roster and absurd amounts of playing time finally reveal him to be a mere mortal?

It sounds strange to even entertain the notion of James—to this point a player who's done nothing but defy our normal understanding of human athletic capability—succumbing to something so base as fatigue.

But between the demands of the regular season and the playoffs, he averaged 95 games per year in his first three seasons with the Heat. Now in his fourth, James has already played 71 of a possible 74 games and insists he won't miss another before the year ends, per Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

I have no choice. I don't plan on sitting out any of these (eight) games unless something happens. I'm going to be in the lineup.

It's never been part of my DNA. If I feel I can get something, I've got to be out there for my teammates. It's my obligation to be out there for them. I'm dealing with a few things but for me to sit out, I have to be dealing with a lot more.

James is right: The Heat need him to suit up for every game down the stretch because the top seed in the East is still up for grabs. Even for this supremely confident Miami bunch, home-court advantage is still a desirable thing.

But James is understandably exhausted, something he dealt with as far back as last year's NBA Finals:

Somehow, he continues to find new energy. This season, he's bounced back after grueling stretches, rising like Lazarus to lead his teammates:

In fact, he's even upped his game when playing at less than 100 percent:

Still, the minutes are piling up at comical rates, and it's key to note that LBJ's minutes aren't exactly typical. Nobody shoulders the physical load he does—guarding four positions, handling the ball and dictating everything the Heat do on both ends.

James has always been able to manage such unfairly burdensome responsibilities, which is why coaches throughout his career have leaned on him extra hard. He currently possesses the sixth-highest minutes-per-game average in NBA history at 39.5, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Despite those demands, King James hasn't suffered a catastrophic injury or shown any clear signs of decline. And even when he's hurting, he almost never sits out.

For some perspective, contrast James' 42 career DNP's with the 23 teammate Dwyane Wade has racked up this season alone.

A bad back, a few games in a mask because of a broken nose and a handful of sprained ankles haven't hindered James yet. But there will come a point when even he can't sustain his absurdly high level of play.

And if that happens during this year's playoffs, the Heat are in huge trouble.

 

Irreplaceable Value

Jonathan Bachman

With James on the floor this season, Miami's net rating is plus-8.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When he sits, that figure drops to plus-2.8—still a positive number, but certainly not one associated with a championship contender.

The numbers help, but we don't need them to explain James' integral role with the Heat. His value to Miami's trapping defense and transition attack is incalculable. And it's similarly impossible to quantify his worth as a permanent safety blanket.

He's the guy who inspires the kind of faith in his teammates that only a true superstar can. No matter how desperate circumstances become, they know he'll be there to bail them out.

Typically, having a player of Wade's caliber on the roster would mitigate any potential damage done by a tired or, God forbid, unavailable James. But based on his frailty this season, we have to expect stretches in the playoffs when Wade's knees, hamstrings or whatever happens to be bothering him at the moment reduce his effectiveness.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 13: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat goes down with an ankle injury against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2012 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/
Bart Young/Getty Images

Or rule him out altogether.

Chris Bosh is a similarly unreliable fallback option. It's been years since he occupied an alpha-dog role, and it's debatable whether he should have ever been a No. 1 option in the first place. He was good enough to lead some .500 teams in Toronto, but there's nothing in his resume that suggests he can fill the void for a player like James.

 

Potential Threats

Frank Franklin II

If fatigue limits LeBron, it's still safe to assume the Heat will survive their first-round matchup. Even hobbled significantly, James will have enough juice to lead his team to victory over the Charlotte Bobcats or New York Knicks.

Fans of those teams will cite Miami's underwhelming late-season record and apparent vulnerability, but let's be serious: The Knicks and Bobcats are sub-.500 teams in a historically weak Eastern Conference.

No matter how vulnerable the Heat may seem—even without James at full strength—they're still the two-time defending champs. Charlotte and New York don't pose a realistic threat in a seven-game series.

After that initial round, things get a little dicier for Miami if James is running on fumes.

The Heat would likely next tangle with the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors, two much more complete outfits boasting top-10 defenses and enough offensive firepower to do some real damage. In particular, we know Chicago won't back down from anyone.

If James isn't right, it's not crazy to assume the Bulls or Raptors could give Miami a real challenge in the conference semifinals.

And the Indiana Pacers are even more dangerous.

Something of a wild card because of a horrendous closing stretch, Indy is still a team that took the Heat to seven games in last year's conference finals. The Pacers are struggling now and have overtaxed, worn out starters of their own. But they've been nothing if not hungry to dethrone the Heat this year.

If Indiana senses weakness, it could pull together, rediscover its form and attack James with the full force of its stifling defensive might. Even in the depths of their March swoon, the Pacers played Miami tough. So we know they'll be ready if there's a repeat of last year's hard-fought series.

 

Just the Facts

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 02:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at American Airlines Arena on April 2, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or usi
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

More broadly, it doesn't take a deep dive into the numbers or a thorough matchup analysis to say the Heat can't win a title without James. If he misses games because of injury, Miami is toast—whether it happens in the second or third round is the only question at that point.

But James is certainly nowhere near fatigued enough to sit out, not that he would without suffering a serious injury.

So what's more interesting to contemplate is how the Heat would fare with a weakened version of their best player. Since he has yet to show any actual weakness, it's almost impossible to guess.

James is in new territory now. He's never played so many games with so many high-leverage, demanding minutes in such a short span. Every additional minute is a risk. And he's never had more at stake with regard to his legacy than he does right now.

If James had been anything short of utterly brilliant in either of his last two postseason runs, the Heat wouldn't have secured their two titles. If he's not his typically dominant self this time around, there won't be a third.

And with uncertainty surrounding the futures of James, Wade and Bosh in Miami, who knows how drastically the landscape could change with a postseason failure.

As usual, there's a lot resting on James' shoulders. It's a good thing he doesn't tire easily.

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