If the first three years of the Miami Heat's superstar experiment with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all about (in order) trial, transformation and immortality, then Year 4 is and will be about preservation.
There are Wade's troublesome knees, in which even mild soreness was enough to occasion his absence during the second game of the 2013-14 NBA season. There's Bosh's psyche, which seems to be in solid shape now that his mid-range jumpers are dropping and his family is still growing.
There are the myriad other aches and pains, both physical and mental, that either are plaguing or will soon plague those members of Miami's squad that have been around for most (if not all) of the more than 300 regular season and playoff games that Erik Spoelstra and company have battled through since 2010.
And now, most troublingly, there's an ache in LeBron's back.
A New Issue?
The concern first came to light on November 8th, during the Heat's 102-97 win over the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. James was seen attempting to stretch out and soothe his back with a heating pad whenever he wasn't in the game.
Which wasn't very often. James played a team-high 37 minutes that night, with a relatively modest (for him) 18 points (on 6-of-13 shooting), five rebounds, six assists and a steal registered therein.
LeBron later revealed that he'd been dealing with discomfort in his back since the middle of training camp, but that he hadn't addressed it publicly because, well, nobody had asked about it (via ESPN's Michael Wallace):
“It just never came up. If it doesn't come up, I don't talk about it. For me, I don't really talk about injuries much, and I've had my fair share. That's just the way it is. If I'm OK to play and I'm out on the court, then I don't have an excuse.”
Indeed, there would be no reason for anyone to ask about LeBron's back if it didn't appear to be a hindrance. The four-time MVP had been and still is performing just fine on the court to start his 11th season.
To date, James is averaging 24.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 8.0 assists, with career highs in field goal percentage (.579) and three-point percentage (.476). That includes the 25 points (on 9-of-13 shooting), eight rebounds and 10 assists in 37 minutes that James racked up against the Boston Celtics on November 9th, in a game for which his status had been somewhat iffy prior to tip-off.
The Heat, though, lost that contest on a stunning buzzer-beater from Jeff Green:
James was about as well-positioned to contest that shot as he possibly could've been, though his evening was far from perfect.
Green and the C's scored 111 points—with 30-plus-point quarters in the second and fourth—on 51.7 percent shooting against a defense that, with LeBron as the lynch pin, ranks third-to-last in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions and opponent offensive rebounding percentage and fifth-to-last in opponent effective field goal percentage.
LeBron's play hasn't exactly been without flaw on the offensive end, either. His turnover numbers, both raw and percentage-wise, are tracking toward new career worsts, despite the fact that his current usage rate (i.e. an estimate of the percentage of a team's plays "used" by a given player, per Basketball Reference) would represent a personal low. Moreover, James' scoring average, while still elite on its own, would be his lowest since pouring in 20.9 points a night as a rookie in 2003-04.
How much of this (slightly) downward shift in James' on-court production is due to his bad back is unclear. There's no denying, though, that the injury is playing a part. As he said after the Heat's loss to the Celtics in Miami (via The Associated Press):
"I'm not 100 percent; my back is not where I want it to be. But I could still be effective. I thought I was tonight. I just didn't make enough plays to help us win."
That would be okay if the Heat were in the thick of a tough playoff series against one of the Eastern Conference's elite. After all, no team or player can claim to be even close to 100 percent healthy in April, May or June. That's the nature of surviving the frying pan of the regular season only to leap into the full-blown grease fire of the playoffs.
But we're not talking about the stretch run of yet another high-stakes championship chase, though. Rather, we're talking about LeBron biting his lip and forging ahead in a loss to one of the league's presumed bottom-feeders... at home... in November. These aren't the games for which James should be killing himself just to stay on the floor.
Nothing to See Here
Then again, pain is a natural part of the game. Even the smallest bit of wear and tear can drop a player's health below the 100-percent threshold. As Wade noted astutely between Miami's last two games (via Michael Wallace):
“Obviously, we're not going to compare ourselves to football, but we play a very physical sport. Once training camp starts, once you get through your first game, you're never 100 percent again. People can take different pain tolerance, different pain levels. LeBron James' back has been sore for a while. He's a special player. But you do want certain things to not linger.”
Furthermore, that lingering soreness isn't likely so severe that the suggestion of LeBron playing through it should have anyone slamming the panic button prematurely. As James said after the Heat's previous home game, against the Clips (via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh):
"If I can't get out of bed, I can't show up here. If I can't give enough to help us be successful, then I won't play. That's the one thing I know I will do, but it wasn't bad enough [on Thursday] to the point where I couldn't help."
James understands his own body better than anyone, doctors included—actual, armchair and otherwise. He wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his own health now to the extent that it might impede his pursuit of a three-peat several months down the line. He also knows how to handle his back problems, if only because they're nothing new:
"I'm doing everything I can to get back to my normal self. I've had a history of [back issues], but I always keep a good eye on it."
"The good thing about it is that it's not the first time I've had a back issue so I should be all right."
In some respects, that familiarity is comforting James. He's experienced back pain before and come out on the other side with his health intact. He's not about to make any rash decisions about how much he should play or whether he should at all because, unlike David after the dentist, he knows that this isn't going to be forever.
Or, rather, it shouldn't be forever if handled properly.
But you never know with these things. You never know what might happen if/when LeBron takes another nasty spill, is hammered on his way to the hoop or tries to stand tall against a bigger, stronger foe on the defensive end. All it takes is one hard hit, one awkward landing, one unfortunate bit of contact to exacerbate James' existing ailment or create a new source of discomfort with which he must contend.
That's the case with any player in the NBA. James, though, is no ordinary player.
(As if I needed to explain that to you, right?)
He's the best player in basketball, but, to the Heat, he's so much more than that. He's the centerpiece of a squad whose collection of shooters, shot-blockers and ball-handlers has been tailored specifically to James' unique, all-around talents.
With him, the Heat are the favorites to become the first team to crack the Finals four times in a row since Larry Bird's Celtics in the mid-1980s and the first to complete a three-peat since the Los Angeles Lakers of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant vintage. Without him, Miami is little more than a run-of-the-mill playoff team in the Eastern Conference, one wholly dependent on an oft-injured superstar (Wade) and an "underutilized" big man (Bosh) to bring home the proverbial bacon.
They might not even have that much of which to boast by the time the 2014-15 season rolls around. James, Wade and Bosh will all be eligible to opt out of their current contract and into free agency on July 1st of next summer.
Even if those three return, the supporting cast figures to feature its fair share of new faces. Norris Cole is the only current Heat role player who's guaranteed to be back. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, James Jones, Michael Beasley, Roger Mason Jr. and Greg Oden will all be unrestricted free agents, while Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Joel Anthony hold player options for next season.
All of which is to say, Miami could be due for a "down" year in 2014-15. The continuity that's supposed to carry the Heat through another exhausting campaign won't likely be a crutch on which they can lean once their current run is done.
Those circumstances add another, more ominous layer to Miami's "championship or bust" expectations. As it happens, the Heat need to make the most of what they have going for them right now, lest they let another potential title slip away.
And, thereafter, lest they give James pause to consider whether he should start anew elsewhere or stay on South Beach to trudge ahead with a retooled roster.
Back to Basics
Truth be told, the consequences of LeBron's ailing back needn't be dramatized to this extent. For all we know, his existing discomfort might be fleeting. It might be something he's used to because he's dealt with it more often than he or anyone else would willingly let on. It could be entirely routine, with the early effects amplified by the delay in his offseason training regimen that resulted from his wedding in San Diego this past September.
But nearly every injury carries with it the risk of further damage, be it to the region in the direct line of fire or to some other part of the body by way of compensation. Moreover, the sort of physical exertion and subjection to physical harm that comes with playing the game the way LeBron does always leaves a player susceptible to something going wrong.
That's always been and always will be the case, even for LeBron. Sure, James' chiseled, 6'8, 250-pound physique may seem indestructible. His strength, speed and athleticism may make him seem as though he can glide through, around or over anyone who stands in his way.
But James is far from invincible. As superhuman as he would appear to be at times, he too can fall victim to fatigue and injury.
This isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff, but if the Heat aren't careful to preserve LeBron as this season rolls along—be it by reducing his minutes from game to game or giving him entire nights off on occasion—this risky reality may be enough to break up their championship dreams.
And, perhaps, their budding dynasty.
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