So Much For Keeping LeBron Fresh

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Why so many minutes to start the season?

There are many things that could be significant from the Cavs’ opening night win over the Celtics. None more so, of course, than the injury to Gordon Hayward, which will likely end his season and cripple the Celtics’ chances of advancing deep into the postseason. But there was one thing in the box score that, as a Cavs fan probably means more than anything else going forward: LeBron James played 41 minutes.

That’s LeBron James, who will be 33 years old in about two months. LeBron, who has played in seven straight NBA Finals, which means that he has played in a hundred games per year for those seven seasons. LeBron, who, for Christ’s sake, missed most of training camp with a sprained ankle! And, needless to say, LeBron, who is absolutely essential to the Cavs in May and June. In October, though? Not so much.

We have heard, ad nauseam, over the past few weeks how this is the deepest and most versatile Cavs team that LeBron has been on. This has to mean that it’s the deepest and most versatile Cavs team, right? Yet, when everything hits the fan, Ty Lue can’t break his old habits. All the stud wing players that GM Koby Altman went out and got sit on the bench while LeBron plays and plays and plays.

I get that the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, that it would have looked bad to blow a big lead to your archrival, especially after they lost Hayward. But there are two ways to look at that. First, no matter how you lose or who you lose to, it’s still one game. That’s 1.22% of the regular season. Golden State blew a big lead to the Rockets on the same night. Is anyone backing off their predictions of the Warriors winning a title? Golden State lost their opener last year to the Spurs by 29 points. How much did that impact them? Well, they might have gone 68–14 instead of 67–15, but otherwise, not much.

Even the Cavs last year proved that they can sleepwalk through the regular season. While it’s probably not advisable to post the 29th best defense in the league after the All-Star break again, the fact that Cleveland fell short of the top seed in the Eastern Conference was barely a speed bump on their path to the Finals.

Here’s another way to look at it, one that I prefer. The Spurs have done something like this for years, with fairly good results if you look at the longevity of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. That is to use your depth in the first half. Too often Ty Lue plays his stars extensively in the first half, hoping that he can build a big lead then use his bench in the second half. Gregg Popovich does the opposite: he plays his entire rotation in the first half, allocating minutes almost equally. Then, if the game is in doubt in the fourth quarter, he can go with whoever has the hot hand and still not have anyone play above 35 minutes. If the game is decided, he can rest his stars and get his bench some time. Kawhi Leonard, who is probably almost as crucial to his team as James, and is seven years younger, played only 33 minutes per game last year. That is five fewer than James, and due largely to this approach.

It is indisputable that Popovich has lost some winnable games over the years with this approach. It is also true that Duncan was an elite player at forty and Ginobili is still a serviceable player at forty. Not to mention that the Spurs have won five titles. The Cavs do have depth. Cleveland has at least nine guys that should be able to handle 20 or more minutes per night without doing serious damage to their chances of winning. Ty Lue needs to use that depth to keep James strong. If nothing else, how will the other guys ever learn to win without James if he keeps bailing them out?

Putting aside all the chatter about James leaving town, the reality is that Cleveland’s window of contention lasts no longer than the end of his career, so the longer he can play at this level the better. That, and winning a title this year, should be what guides every choice made by the people running this franchise. Playing LeBron 41 minutes on opening night does neither of those.

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