When the Cleveland Cavaliers open their season at home on Thursday night, fans will once again gaze upon a 10-story-tall, Nike-sponsored banner of Akron’s favorite son, LeBron James. The new LeBronvertisement will hang in the same spot that James’ iconic “We Are All Witnesses” billboard fluttered until a certain ill-fated television special in 2010, and its presence will suggest a righted universe. Basketball’s greatest living practitioner is back where he belongs, looming godlike over his adoring city. It will be a welcome sight for both Cleveland and the NBA itself, a league whose players have recently been dropping like—well, if not flies, at least mortal beings.
This Tuesday, the NBA’s opening night began with rising star Anthony Davis blocking nine shots and ended with rookie Julius Randle getting carried off the court with a broken leg. The sequence of events felt like a microcosm of NBA life: intoxicating promise chased by harsh reality, supermen unburdened by gravity until they’re collapsed in pain on the floor.
In any sports league, the dawn of a new season is typically a time for hope, when every fan outside of the greater Philadelphia area believes his favorite team could be a contender if everything breaks right. This year, though, a lot broke wrong before the season began. When Indiana’s All-Star small forward Paul George fractured his tibia during a Team USA scrimmage in August, the immediate (and probably correct) consensus was that his gruesome injury would kill the upcoming season of a Pacers team just a few months removed from the Eastern Conference Finals. Oklahoma City forward and reigning MVP Kevin Durant is now indefinitely scooter-bound and set to miss the first part of the season with a broken foot. Unlike the Pacers, no one expects Durant’s Thunder to suffer too much in his absence, as the team boasts a second superstar in point guard Russell Westbrook—albeit a superstar who’s had three knee surgeries himself over the past two years, and just last season missed 36 games.
The NBA and its corporate partners have long encouraged fantasies of the league’s stars as superhuman. Michael Jordan went to space. Charles Barkley posted up Godzilla. Superhero capes have passed from Shaquille O’Neal to Dwight Howard to Blake Griffin. But more and more, such imagery invites cognitive dissonance. It’s not just George, Durant, and Westbrook who’ve crashed to Earth. Adidas’ Derrick Rose bullfighting spot from 2012 already feels hopelessly dated in light of the Bulls star’s knee troubles, and watching the oft-hobbled Dwyane Wade in a 2010, Iron Man-inspired Nike commercial is either cringe-inducing or laughter-inducing, depending on your allegiances.
It’s tempting to see Rose as the exemplar of the fickleness of NBA life. Point guard is the premier position in today’s NBA, and every team salivates over finding the next otherworldly athlete to man the position. Rose is, or was, at the vanguard of this movement, a breathtaking mix of explosiveness and controlled power who became the youngest MVP in league history just three years ago. Two major injuries later, it’s hard not to wonder if all this leaping of tall buildings broke him down in ways we couldn’t see. Maybe the reason that 99.9 percent of human bodies can’t do things like this is that human bodies aren’t really supposed to. In Wright Thompson’s recent ESPN the Magazine profile, Rose comes across as nothing if not fragile—physically, psychically, emotionally.
But anyone looking for the starkest illustration of the precariousness of the league’s health, in every sense, should look to Cleveland’s literal poster child, LeBron James himself. For 12 seasons, King James has been the NBA’s crowning asset, a player whose immense gifts have made him its most potent fantasy object since Michael Jordan. The most games James has ever missed in a season is seven. He’s missed only 44 in his whole career—just 11 more than the Pelicans’ Davis, who is a mere 21 years old.
The more distressing side of this is that James has played more minutes than anyone in basketball since the 2010–11 season, with the pre-scooter Durant a close second. As ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh noted last April, “Over the past three and a half years, James and Durant have essentially crammed in an extra NBA season compared to the rest of the league.” And that was written before LeBron led the Miami Heat to their fourth consecutive trip to the finals. The center cannot hold, as someone once said, and they weren’t talking about the Cavs’ notoriously gimpy pivotman Anderson Varejao. If LeBron ends up rolling around Cleveland on a scooter, that would be very bad for the Cavs, the NBA, basketball fans, and everyone else who doesn’t own stock in the company that manufactured said scooter.
Superstar injuries in the NBA are nothing new—Magic, Bird, and Jordan each missed long stretches either during or near their respective primes—and it’s hard to say if basketball is a more dangerous sport now than in generations past. In the post-lockout years of 2012 and 2013 there appeared to be a discernible spike in ACL tears, which felled stars such as Rose, the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, and the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio, as well as role players like Iman Shumpert and Lou Williams. This trend has since been refuted, even as other knee injuries have recently hampered Westbrook (torn meniscus), Kobe Bryant (lateral tibial plateau fracture), and Rose yet again (torn mensicus).
But in an era of fantasy leagues, up-to-the-minute smartphone notifications, and Byzantine salary cap rules, injuries loom over the league and its fans as never before. Players and coaches are acutely aware of this. In recent weeks, the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, and LeBron James himself have publicly advocated for a shortened season. Michael Jordan, as you’d expect, offered up a “kids today” rebuttal from the owner’s box, remarking, “If I wasn't playing 82 games, I still would've been playing somewhere else because that's the love for the game I had.” (Jordan’s former minor-league baseball teammates could not be reached for comment.)
The NBA, eager to protect its stars but loath to sacrifice the box-office rewards of an 82-game schedule, recently experimented with a 44-minute preseason game, which clocked in at a brisk two hours. But such flirtations are half-hearted Band-Aids. The grind of the league is less about a few extra minutes per night than it is about games played on back-to-back nights, overnight flights, and interminable winter road trips. And who’s to say a 44-minute game would actually cut into a superstar’s minutes total? Last year’s leader in time served, Carmelo Anthony, played 38.7 minutes per game. Even with a shortened game clock, why would the Knicks’ Derek Fisher, a first-year coach of a bad team in a brutal media market, have any incentive to play him less?
Luckily for him and everyone who loves watches him play, LeBron may have been granted a reprieve from this grueling cycle. David Blatt, the Cavs’ first-year coach, has suggested that LeBron might see his minutes curtailed this season. Cleveland fans should hope that he follows through on that strategy. Nobody’s going to hang a 10-story banner of LeBron James sitting on the bench. But for James to stay in full flight for as long as possible, he’ll need to stay grounded for long enough that the rigors of pro basketball don’t grind him down.