Why are LeBron's numbers down?

Originally Published: January 14, 2014
ESPN.com

LeBron James is averaging 26 points, 6.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game -- great stats, but a little down from last season's for the reigning MVP. What's going on? Our 5-on-5 crew examines.


1. Is LeBron coasting?


J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: He's not coasting, he's being more efficient. He's traded a one-point dip in scoring for taking two fewer shots per game. And he certainly doesn't let the Heat give up on games. Their first three losses of the season were by a total of six points. And two of their past three losses have been in overtime. That's not the sign of a player or a team that's just getting by.

James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Let's call it conserving energy. LeBron isn't guarding the opposing team's best player most of the time. He isn't playing as many minutes at power forward as he will in the postseason. Overall he isn't pushing himself like he will come playoff time, especially on defense, but he probably shouldn't.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Considering LeBron has only two more blocked shots than Stephen Curry, yes I'd say he's coasting a bit. He's also probably fatigued and slightly injured on occasion (he's talked about his strained back). "Coasting" is less an accusation and more an appraisal of a player who's too smart to think every night is Game 7 of the Finals.

Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Conserving may be more accurate. It's tough to decipher intent, but the way the Heat have approached Dwyane Wade's health suggests there may be some thought behind it. Perhaps James has become a bit too consumed by his quest for the perfect shooting efficiency, but his PER is still the fifth best in his career. He's not exactly dogging it.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: No. You don't carry a two-time defending champion off to one of its best starts in franchise history -- all while battling injuries throughout the lineup -- by coasting. Instead, what LeBron James is doing would be better described as compartmentalizing. Entering each game, he assesses how he feels, who he has available alongside him and then determines how much to conserve until his most maximum effort is needed to finish off an opponent.


2. Is LeBron as good as ever, not as good, or better?


Adande: He's as good as ever. Again, look at the shooting percentage. His understanding of the game is at an all-time high. What's amazing to me is that his athleticism hasn't diminished despite the toll of 9 1/2 seasons in the NBA. Look how high he got on this recent alley-oop.

Herbert: LeBron is better than ever, even if he isn't producing like it in all facets of the game. His improved efficiency is astonishing and, when he needs to dominate on either end of the floor, he's more than capable of doing so.

Strauss: The guy we're seeing this season is not as good. Here's where it gets complicated. In many ways, Cleveland LeBron was statistically superior to later versions. He just didn't have as refined a game, and could be thwarted in the playoffs by a great defensive team with a sound plan. The recent LeBron isn't quite as explosive, but his shooting and post game means that no one strategy can stop him. His rebounding and blocks might be down this season, but I expect him to be an inexorable force come the postseason.

Verrier: As good as ever. Even after what was perhaps his best season to date, those career-high shooting numbers suggest James is still evolving, and still working toward evolving. The issue here is one of application. We can't call him better when he appears to be making a conscious choice not to show that he's better. They say Kobe can still defend when he wants to, too, y'know.

Wallace: He's as good as ever. What he isn't, however, is as healthy and spry as ever. This is the season when it's obvious that LeBron's non-stop grind over the past two seasons is catching up to him a bit. He's openly talked about how physically and mentally fatigued he's been this season. His nagging injuries -- back, ankles, groin -- are lingering longer than normal. His turnovers are high, but so is his incredible shooting percentage. His durability, to me, has been his biggest strength.


3. Are the Heat as good this season as they were last season?


Adande: Not quite as good ... and that's a direct function of how good they were last season. Playing so deep into June (on the heels of two previous trips to the NBA Finals for many of the players on the roster) has to drain them. One thing that's fortunate for the Heat is they don't need to be as good most nights playing in the dreadful Eastern Conference.

Herbert: They should be. We'll only really find out in the playoffs, but my hunch is that they're better. Michael Beasley's been a pleasant surprise, LeBron is still the best player in the world and Miami's program to keep Dwyane Wade healthy has worked up until this point.

Strauss: No, because they lost Mike Miller to amnesty. Also, they're less inclined to prove how good they are after last season's win streak seemed to leave Dwyane Wade depleted in the playoffs. Speaking of which, the Heat don't care if they're worse at this point this season than they were last season. They care massively that Wade's able to be himself in the spring.

Verrier: Yup. That the big story surrounding this team is whether or not they're really trying should be enough to throw most regular-season findings within reason out the window. The Heat are subtly conceding that it's all about the postseason, and this is basically the same team that won the last one, with a 7-foot Kraken with top-pick pedigree waiting to be released should they need it.

Wallace: Yes. Actually, they're better. We've seen some uneven play throughout the first 37 games. But when Miami is on, particularly during that stretch when the Heat won 15 of 18 recently, they played with a level of pace, space and passing that offered glimpses of their dominant versatility and depth. But continuity has been an issue. There have been more than a dozen different starting lineups already, with three of five regular starters having missed at least a week of games.


4. Is it wise for the Heat to "coast" in the regular season?


Adande: It is. They don't need to waste energy in January and February. That's due in part to the fact they don't need home-court advantage to win in the playoffs. They didn't have it in their first Finals victory against Oklahoma City, and they picked up big victories in Boston and Indiana when they needed them the past couple of seasons.

Herbert: To a certain extent. Above all else, the Heat have to be ready in May and June. It's understandable that their defensive focus will slip from time to time because their style requires so much energy and they're almost always far more talented than their opponents. They need to do their best to stick with their principles, though.

Strauss: Yes, and title winners have done this before. The 2001 Lakers come to mind. So do the 1995 Rockets. "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion!" also means, "Champions slack like crazy." Teams have a finite amount of energy and those who know what it takes to win a title can find themselves conserving that energy for the end.

Verrier: Sure. How many more Wade Watches were we going to go through in the postseason before a behavior change occurred? There's a risk in conceding home court to a team that you needed seven games to beat, but health, especially for a team that's played more than anyone these past four seasons, is the priority.

Wallace: Yes, it's wise. But it's unfair to imply this team is coasting. They're 27-10. Portland was praised for that kind of start. Oklahoma City gets credited for its resolve and has used its similar record to promote Kevin Durant's MVP worthiness while Russell Westbrook is on the mend. San Antonio is viewed as the awesome machine that just keeps on ticking under these circumstances. But yet the Heat are labeled as "coasters"? C'mon, man. More perspective is necessary.


5. What are the main concerns for Miami going forward this season?


Adande: Health. Health. And health. Their main concerns are getting Dwyane Wade's knees through the year OK, and not seeing anyone else get injured. If they can do that it will be a successful season, regardless of their record, regardless of whether LeBron wins another MVP.

Herbert: The main concern is health and fatigue. Miami needs to make sure it's capable of playing at its peak in the playoffs. Repeated trips to the Finals are draining and the Heat constantly have to fight against their own exhaustion and the temptation to get complacent. The other concern is that the Indiana Pacers are No. 1 in the East.

Strauss: The concern is that home-court advantage matters. The Heat believe they can win any series in six games, but what if they can't? It could open the door to the Lance Stephenson Finals MVP award no one saw coming back in 2012.

Verrier: Health will always be the main concern for a team relying on ring-chasing veterans and a second-best player with the knees of a fading catcher, but the Pacers are a close second; for the first time in the Big Three era, an East team legitimately could be better than the Heat. A more assaultive defense on par with the Chicagos and not the Houstons would be nice, too.

Wallace: Managing injuries. As mentioned earlier, three of the Heat's primary starters have missed a significant chunk of games already. At some point, the cohesion is going to have to kick in. But the Heat can piece together lineups throughout the regular season and survive most nights as long as LeBron is available. The ultimate priority is to get Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Shane Battier relatively healthy by the postseason -- without significantly wearing down LeBron before then.

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