CLEVELAND — While he won't win this season's MVP race, LeBron James remains as crucial to his team's success as perhaps any athlete on the planet.
This now becomes the Cavs' great balancing act. Grind out James, who's been to five straight NBA Finals, and the No. 1 seed in the East should be theirs for the taking. Rest his 31-year-old frame for another title run and risk playing a potential Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on the road.
Head coach Tyronn Lue has seemingly flipped back and forth between these two options, stating the importance of winning now while turning around and resting his star forward.
"I still want to win the first spot. I still want to be No. 1 in the East," said Lue after Tuesday's game, in which James sat (and coached) from the bench. "Knowing how we are, the season’s long, guys are banged up. Talking to the training staff, if guys need rest, we have to give it to them, but we still want to get the No. 1 seed."
Cleveland is now just 2.5 games up on the Toronto Raptors for bragging rights in the East with eight games to go. They, along with Atlanta, are the only teams in the East to secure a playoff spot to date.
Toronto took two out of three regular-season games from the Cavs and represents a significant threat to their chance of reaching the Finals. If a potential playoff meeting did indeed stretch to seven games, and if Cleveland did ultimately surrender the first seed in the regular season, the Cavaliers would need to pack their passports.
This is a big deal, but just how consequential?
The Cavs are 22-15 on the road this year. Toronto is 28-9 at home—the second-best record in the conference behind Cleveland's 30-7 mark.
Home-court advantage is nice and all, but the cold, hard reality is, Cleveland will go nowhere in the postseason without a healthy James.
LeBron carries an on/off rating of plus-15.3 this season, by far the greatest on the team. Matthew Dellavedova is second at plus-8.4. Not having James available means a heavier workload for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, both of whom were given the opportunity to carry past teams, but failed to reach the playoffs.
When asked about the struggle between resting guys and going for the No. 1 seed, Irving shook it off.
"Winning is winning. We obviously are aware of where we are, but winning is winning."
Resting James and leaning on Irving and Love is a dangerous game. Entering Tuesday's contest, the two-man lineup of James and Love had a net rating of plus-11.2 this season. James and Irving together were a plus-7.0. With just Irving and Love, this number dropped to plus-5.1, per B/R Insights.
As talented as the two are, both Love and Irving are ball-dominant, score-first players who need a willing distributor like James around. Still, when resting LeBron, Lue believes the duo can work.
"I just think when Bron sits out and those two guys are together, they just have to play their games," Lue said. "We have to run the offense through them. That’s not just scoring the basketball, it also means getting other guys involved and making the pass and making plays. As far as them playing well together, I think they can do that."
Cleveland has just eight games left in the regular season, with two sets of back-to-backs. It plays three spaced-out contests over the final seven days, which will allow plenty of rest before the postseason fires up.
For now, Lue seems to prefer rest over wins. Against Houston with a resting James, Lue went 11-deep off his bench in the first quarter alone.
"My whole train of thought for this team is to make sure we continue to play guys so they get into a rhythm for the playoffs," Lue said. "We can’t not play guys and then get to the playoffs and have someone go down, God forbid, and they haven’t played in a month or two."
Lue also said with eight games remaining, he estimated they would play a full squad just five or six times. This likely means rest not just for James, but Irving and Love as well.
If the Raptors want to play their stars heavy minutes in an attempt to capture the East, the Cavs should go ahead and let them without changing their own plans. After all, home-court advantage didn't matter much to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last year when it swept the Atlanta Hawks with a healthy James.
If Toronto finishes first in the East, it will be a major accomplishment. For Cleveland, the measure of success is a championship and nothing else.
Resting James here and there may be difficult to watch with the conference lead in danger, but if it's what must be done for the ultimate goal to be obtained, it could be well worth it for this championship-or-bust Cavaliers franchise.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced and are current as of March 29 unless otherwise noted.
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