This same break allowed the Spurs to dethrone the Heat in five games during the NBA Finals. The Spurs looked like the better team throughout, and an argument could be made that this was the product of a superior maintenance plan in comparison to the runners-up.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade simply looked spent at times during the Finals. ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) had the details after Game 4 of the Finals: “The Heat's big three of James, Wade and Bosh has played a combined 10,000 minutes more than the Spurs' big three since the 2010-11 season.”
After Game 2, San Antonio continuously outclassed Miami and routinely got open looks against one of the best defenses in the league. When the Spurs actually missed, it had more to do with them than it did with Miami.
LeBron James and Co. were consistently one or two steps late, and fatigue was a big part of that. The toll of four consecutive Finals appearances coupled with a team willing to force Miami to make multiple high-energy movements in each possession became too much for the Heat to handle.
The Big Three will need more rest if the trio remains together. Indeed, James, Bosh and Wade could opt out of their deals and become free agents this summer, but in the event they remain together, some changes will be needed.
No Longer a Cyborg
LeBron is one of the greatest athletes the league has ever seen. And yet, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stripped him of his cyborg-like qualities and rendered him human. In his prime, no less.
Since joining Miami in the 2010 offseason, James has led the team in minutes every year. He is perhaps the best conditioned player in the league, and that has allowed him to remain on the floor for long periods despite his numerous responsibilities.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been relying on James to shut down the best opposing perimeter player (sometimes even interior) while being responsible for running the offense and carrying the scoring burden.
That’s what it takes for the Heat to win, and he’s quite cognizant of that.
“For me, I do whatever it takes to help our team win,” James said, according to ProBasketballTalks’s Kurt Helin after Game 4 of the Finals. “If it’s me going one-on-one to try to help us win, if it’s me getting guys involved and taking threes in rhythm, then I’ll do it.”
I can't recall anyone that I've coached against that's like that. There's nothing that he doesn't do. He's great with the ball, great without the ball, can post, can drive, can shoot, can really pass. If you overcommit to him he's going to make you really pay. And he keeps getting better every year. So he's an all-time great.
However, James can no longer do it all at the same rate because of wear and tear. His regular-season minutes have remained fairly consistent during his time in Miami, but his postseason workload has steadily declined. Have a look below:
|LeBron James Career Minutes per Game with Miami Heat|
Despite the reduction in James’ playoff minutes, he hasn’t been able to shoulder the load like in previous years. LeBron looked worn down during the Finals and sat out more often in the second halves of games against the Spurs than at any other point in his career with the Heat.
Have a look at his second-half postseason minutes since 2010-11:
|LeBron James Career 2nd Half Postseason Minutes per Game with Heat|
|Season||2nd Half Minutes per Game|
Against the Spurs, LeBron played 17.2 second-half minutes per game. Granted, his time missed due to cramps in Game 1 skew those numbers ever so slightly. Subtract Game 1, and James still “only” played 18.1 minutes per game in the final two quarters of every contest against San Antonio, per NBA.com.
That fatigue turned him into an occasional bystander on offense and defense, and it also transformed him into a jump-shooter. NBA.com tells us LeBron took more than twice as many restricted area shots in the first halves (25) when compared to the second halves (11) versus San Antonio.
Interestingly enough, the playing time issue only applies to James.
Spoelstra quickly realized he could get away with reducing the workload of Bosh and Wade, provided that James was on the floor. Here’s the regular-season breakdown for the other two members of the Big Three:
|Regular-Season Minutes per Game|
Let’s perform the same exercise for the playoffs:
|Postseason Minutes per Game|
Bosh and Wade have been fine for the most part, although it’s fair to wonder if Wade actually missed too many games this past season. He sat out 28 contests as part of a maintenance program to get himself ready for the Eastern Conference Finals and Finals, but I do wonder if the absences threw off his internal clock when he started playing every other day during the postseason.
Miami took a few steps to preserve some of the members of the Big Three, but they didn’t pay enough attention to the one many believe was indestructible.
The time has arrived for the following to take place.
Learn from Defeat
In losing to San Antonio, Miami probably realized that it must make a better effort to require less from its stars.
Popovich came to that conclusion a few years ago, and it’s helped him keep an aging roster fresh. Once Tim Duncan hit his prime circa 2004-05, Pop dropped his minutes. The reasoning was simple: San Antonio would always play well into May and possibly June, thus its players would need whatever rest it could afford.
In related news, Duncan has been averaging 31.8 minutes during the regular season since age 28, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
If we look at Tony Parker, nothing about his playing time would suggest he’s an elite point guard. He’s averaged 32.6 minutes during his career and has never played 35 minutes or more on average during the 82-game grind.
The real kicker is Manu Ginobili. His career high in minutes per game occurred during the 2007-08 campaign, when he played 31.1 minutes per contest. For his career, he’s playing 27.1 minutes on average.
All three players see their minutes take a hefty boost in the playoffs, and they continue to give the Spurs quality production during the playoffs. None of them have to worry about managing their energy because of the rest Popovich affords players.
ESPN.com’s Haberstroh (subscription required) explained the mad scientist’s strategy vis-à-vis rest after Game 4 of the Finals:
The Spurs look like the fresher team in the Finals probably because Gregg Popovich designed it this way. He managed his team's minutes with the long haul in mind, probably more so than any other coach in the league. Not a single player on the Spurs' roster averaged more than 30 minutes per game. It's first time in NBA history that has ever happened.
If we bring this back to the Heat, this is the model Spoelstra should be following. Wade and Bosh already get a good share of rest, and it’s time for James to join the group.
To be fair, the coaching staff could avoid such a strategy if the roster makeup changes. If Miami were to bring in players to run the offense and defend perimeter players, the decrease in responsibilities could free up LeBron to maintain the same minute count. However, that only works if those players are better than James at accomplishing these tasks, which seems unlikely.
Consequently, LeBron’s minutes have to come down, especially if Miami is planning on playing into June for the next few years.