LeBron James has posted some of the most mind-boggling playoff statistics in NBA history, but if one column in his box score consistently stands out, it's his minutes total. He has played 10,496 total playoff minutes in his career, roughly three extra seasons worth of games at his typical workload. That typical workload increases significantly when the postseason rolls around, though. Playoff LeBron almost always plays at least 40 minutes in close games.
|NBA Season||40-Minute Playoff Games|
This makes sense intuitively. LeBron's fitness is beyond reproach. He has always been one of the NBA's best athletes, so it stands to reason that he'd also be among the most durable. He's played all 48 minutes in four separate playoff games, with the last one coming as recently as 2018, when he was 33 years old. Endurance has never been an issue. LeBron, for nearly two decades, has been superhuman. In some ways, he still is. At 35, he is still widely considered the NBA's best player.
But that superhuman endurance? That might be slipping. James played only 37 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. The Lakers won those 37 minutes by two points ... but lost the game by eight. LeBron sitting for 11 minutes was enough for a 10-point Denver swing, and that's nothing new. He sat for a total of 28 minutes across five 2017 NBA Finals games. The Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 27 points in that span. LeBron's teams have always struggled when he's gone to the bench. They've just been fortunate that he almost never needed to.
At 35 years old? He does require more breathers on the bench. James has played 40 minutes only once in the 2020 playoffs. It came in a Game 1 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, the sort of defeat that typically leads to stars playing more minutes, not less. Yet his minutes have gone down ever since, and even that Portland game wasn't a particularly high peak to come down from. He played 41 minutes and three seconds in the playoff opener. Ready for a starting fact? Playoff LeBron has topped that 154 times out of 252 total playoff games. In 2020, James has not had a top-150 playoff game in his career in terms of minutes played.
There are good reasons for that aside from the simple fact that James is old. In general, players play less now than they did even a few years ago. Almost everyone's conditioning declined during the pandemic. The Lakers have also played a number of blowouts, allowing him extra rest, and the bubble schedule of games every other night allows less day-to-day rest. No matter the culprit, the numbers have been clear: LeBron needs that rest. Throughout the postseason, he's worn down as games have progressed.
|LeBron James Shooting||Field Goal Percentage|
64.4% (38 of 59)
66.7% (44 of 66)
40.4% (19 of 47)
44.2% (23 of 52)
0% (0 for 6)
The Lakers don't have a roster equipped to play without LeBron for extended stretches. During the regular season, they were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, a gap that has grown to 15.6 in the playoffs, and he was the only regular-season rotation player whose absence pushed the Lakers into a negative net rating. As well as Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso have played in supporting roles this postseason, LeBron is the only primary ball-handler on this roster.
And he might still be the best one in all of basketball. James is still averaging 25.9 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He's 1.2 assists per game short of a triple-double average for an entire playoff run, a feat never achieved over more than 12 total games (LeBron has already played 13). He's playing his best defense since his Miami days. For 36-38 minutes, LeBron is still very much LeBron.
But that kind of qualifier has never been needed in the past. He was superhuman, immune to such common necessities as rest or help. Now, for the first time in perhaps a decade, Playoff LeBron looks mortal. He may still be the best player in the world, but he finally has a weakness, and it's a weakness the Lakers aren't particularly well-equipped to cover up. Were it not for an Anthony Davis buzzer-beater, the Lakers would be trailing 2-1 in this series with losses explainable by a miserable LeBron fourth quarter in Game 2 and an even worse outing by his bench in Game 3.
Even leading 2-1, the Lakers can't exactly afford complacency. The Nuggets have already come back from two separate 3-1 deficits. They've won the past six quarters of this series by 18 points. Whether in this series or in the NBA Finals, a time is going to come in which the Lakers are going to have to optimize and use a shorter, more traditional playoff rotation.
That used to mean throwing LeBron out there for 44 or 45 minutes and taking the bench out of the equation. It isn't clear if that's possible anymore. Perhaps the Lakers have intentionally limited LeBron's minutes to give themselves a trump card. They haven't needed him to play 45 minutes yet. They haven't lost more than a single game in any series, after all, so the idea of saving him for when he is needed most makes some sense. But it's no longer the only or even the likeliest explanation for his workload. The probable answer is that a condensed schedule and imperfect roster are taking a toll on him at 35 that they wouldn't have in years past, and even if the Lakers remain heavy championship favorites, it makes them more vulnerable than LeBron's best teams have ever been.