ESPN – CLEVELAND — It has been hard to fathom how LeBron James can be playing more games than ever, more minutes than ever, and yet in some ways be more dominant than ever.
The answer might be simple: James has perfected the art of resting while playing.
It’s a concept high-energy athletes such as boxers and swimmers have used for years: looking for moments in competition in which they can ease their load and allow for little scraps of rest they hope will add up. For James, this means finding times within games when he can catch his breath even when play is going on.
He has been slowly learning how to do it for years.
“It’s just about growing, maturing and understanding that you play smarter,” James said. “It’s not like you’re out there and you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to get back on defense here. Not going to do this here.’ It’s just about picking your spots.”
Here’s the data that illustrates it. No one would ever call James slow, but he is when he wants to be. During the regular season, James’ average speed during games was 3.85 mph, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
Of all players who averaged at least 20 minutes a game, that ranked in the bottom 10 in speed. That’s correct: James moved slower than just about any rotation player in the league. And since the playoffs started, James has gotten even slower. His average has slipped to 3.69 mph.
Here’s why: James walks a lot. During the regular season, about 74.4 percent of James’ time on the court was spent walking. Again, this was in the top 10 in the league. Almost no one walked up and down the floor more than James. And in the playoffs, he’s walking even more — 78.7 percent of the time.
It’s a data-backed way of saying James calculates when he can take plays off. Or more appropriately, when he needs to take them off.
It manifests itself in many ways. For example, during free throws, James will often walk to the other end of the floor. It saves him having to run when possession changes. He also at times will take himself out of an offensive play and stand on the wing, knowing he needs a breather.
“It helps having teammates out there who can take a few possessions for you offensively,” James said. “And you can kind of understand you can use all the energy on the defensive end for a few possessions.”
As he has aged, James has become focused on being an efficient offensive player. He doesn’t want to waste shots. He cares more about percentages than he does about volume. Efficiency is often how James judges how well he has played at the end of a night.
But he also has come to understand how he can have energy efficiency — whether it’s extending his rest at the end of quarters to take advantage of long television timeouts or deciding when it’s best to burn fuel.
Chase-down blocks are a signature of James’ career, but they soak up energy. Sometimes, it makes better long-term sense to allow an opponent to have an easy basket.
“It’s just trying to save pockets of energy throughout, especially the second half, when I know it’s going to be a possession game,” James said. “I try to save pockets of energy when I know I’m going to be needed [later].”
Over the course of games, playoff series and even playoff runs, these little corners often add up. It isn’t unusual to see James show fatigue at stretches during games, especially in the fourth quarter. Second Spectrum data shows that’s when he runs the slowest, at 3.4 mph on average. So that when he needs something extra, he has it.
Such as in the final moments of Game 3 against the Toronto Raptors: James had played more than any player and was the fastest of any player as he raced to set up his game-winning hoop.
“He gets tired after the game, but not during the game,” Cleveland Cavalierscoach Ty Lue said. “I think it’s his mental toughness. Not giving in to fatigue is a big part of who he is.”