LeBron James was going home eventually. Most everyone around the NBA expected him to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point before his career ended; after all, he'd never fully severed ties with the area and being viewed as a traitor where he grew up didn't seem like something James wanted to face for the rest of his life. However much as his skin thickened from the fallout of leaving, being loved by those who came up as he did still clearly matters to LeBron.
The only question was whether or not he'd come back while he was still at the height of his powers, or at least with a ready-enough reserve to drive the franchise to a championship. That's why, when he decided last summer to return, the howl of joy from northern Ohio was so unbridled. LeBron James wasn't coming home as a battle-scarred veteran of skirmishes waged elsewhere—he was coming home as a warrior in his prime, ready to single-handedly, if need be, deliver the chalice for which Clevelanders have thirsted for so long.
Or did he?
By the calendar, James, who turns 30 in December, should have at least three solid seasons left to ply his do-everything talents. Michael Jordan, the measuring stick for every modern-day championship-contending superstar, played three more full seasons and won three more rings after the age of 30. Why couldn't James duplicate that feat or even go beyond it? His listed height and weight (6'8", 250 pounds) suggests he's merely added 10 pounds since his rookie year. A before-and-after comparison will tell you how far from reality that is; but by any measure he has several inches and pounds on Jordan (last listed as 6'6" and 216) and big men are generally able to squeeze out a few more quality years.
NBA teams, though, know better than to base where a player is in his career on his age; seasons and minutes played are a far better barometer. Looking at that metric, James didn't return to Cleveland at the point Jordan began his pursuit of a second three-peat—he returns with nearly the same mileage Jordan had on him when he retired from the Bulls for good at age 35.
Two teams at the forefront of the analytics movement told B/R they have tried to determine the tipping point at which career minutes played take something irretrievable from an NBA player. Both teams said they've yet to find it because there are too many variables—body composition, style of play, role, concentration of minutes and ratio of regular-season to postseason minutes being only a few. That leaves us merely with anecdotal evidence, not only in terms of when a player realizes the NBA grind has diminished his physical ability for good, but also of the impact of multiple deep playoff runs. Every player will tell you the stress and heightened level of play in the postseason extracts something even greater than regular-season games and that the shortened offseason doubles down on the damage because their bodies have less time to recover.
"It takes a lot out of you that you can't get back," says Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who went to two consecutive NBA Finals (2002, '03) with the New Jersey Nets. "Just the mental grind takes time to recover from. And then if you're handling the ball 50 percent of the time? Look at every guy who has had to do that and gone to multiple finals in a row—they've all broken down in some way. LeBron is the only one I can think of who hasn't."
Kidd turned 30 a few months before the 2003 Finals. Minutes played, regular season and playoffs combined at that point: 27,124.
A year later, he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee. One of the most explosive and athletic point guards ever now had to transform himself from a one-man fast break into a walk-it-up technician and three-point specialist. He did all that after returning to his original team, the Dallas Mavericks, and eventually earned himself another trip to the Finals and the ring he'd missed out on with the Nets. But where he was the driving force—literally and figuratively—nine years earlier, he was now merely a cog. An invaluable, important cog, but a cog nonetheless.
Mark Jackson is 33rd on the all-time minutes played list with 39,121 plus another 3,776 from the postseason, despite only going to the NBA Finals once. He doubts he'd logged any of them if he hadn't learned early on to do what Kidd did in his return to Dallas.
"I was never a phenomenal athlete," he said. "It didn't slow down for me because it was already slow. If I'd had speed I'm not sure I would've made [it in] the league because it forced me to understand angles and timing right from the start."
Even Jackson, though, recognized a change around the 20,000-minute mark. "I played against Allen Iverson his rookie year," he said. "He shot the gap and steals the ball. There was a time when I could've fouled him or at least made him change direction. But I couldn't even catch him. I realized then the clock was ticking."
Kidd retired third on the all-time list of regular-season minutes played with 50,111. Microfracture surgery allowed him to extend his career and for a time he still felt he could hold his own athletically, but he believes the 40,000-minute mark was another turning point. He had to rely on his vision, strength and hands to compensate for what his legs could no longer do.
James not only has Kidd beat 4-2 in consecutive Finals reached, and Finals' appearances overall, 5-3, but the number of postseason minutes logged each time is not close. Kidd crossed the 850-minute playoff threshold once, logging 803, 852 and 744 minutes in his three longest playoff runs. James crossed the 950-minute threshold twice, logging 893, 922, 983, 960 and 763 minutes in his longest runs.
Jordan? He played more than 900 minutes in a postseason just once, in 1992.
His overall minutes in his two three-peats were fairly comparable (2,409 in the second vs. 2,392 in the first) but keep in mind that he played a different role capturing the second trifecta. He still closed games, but facilitating the offense and taking on the toughest defensive assignments fell far more often to his younger sidekick, Scottie Pippen.
Jordan bowed out after 35,887 regular-season minutes and 7,474 posteason minutes played. Three years later, he'd return one last time and add a little over 5,000 minutes to his regular-season total with the Wizards.
James, entering this season, already was closing in on Jordan's Chicago totals with 33,276 regular-season and 6,717 postseason minutes. Cramps? Yeah, the man has earned the right to cramp up.
It's actually remarkable that back spasms and leg cramps are the extent of James' physical issues, considering how much he already has played. Sure, the variables also include a different level of physicality in today's game vs. Jordan and Jackson and Kidd's (early) eras. James hasn't had to endure anywhere near the same body-to-body punishment that any of them did and it's hard to know exactly how that fits into the equation.
The point? If James looks tired, he has a right to be. If he has lost a step, that shouldn't come as a surprise. And if he isn't up to the task of doing all that he did in Miami for the last four years, there's a very good reason. This might not just be about "the process," as James likes to say, of learning how to win championships.
This might just be about the price.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.