Unbreakable: LeBron James Is Historically Great At Avoiding Injuries


LeBron James flexes for fans. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

NBA players get injured. It’s a constant of the game.

They suffer fluke shoulder injuries. (Like Kevin Love.)

They get tendonitis. (Like Kyrie Irving.) They have their nose broken. (Like Kyrie Irving.) They suffer knee injuries. (Like Kyrie Irving – yes, the man is fragile.)

But amid the cavalcade of injuries, there’s another constant: LeBron James doesn’t get hurt.

Even as his All-Star teammates have fallen, James has gotten up. Again and again.

It’s made for the most compelling story of the NBA Finals: James single-handedly carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors.

James is averaging 46 minutes per game in the Finals. He’s played through a wicked cut to the head. He just recorded one of the greatest games in league history, despite being more over-used than almost anyone in league history. (More on that in a second.)

Sports scientists are marveling over James’ “unfathomable” performance in the Finals, Tom Haberstroh wrote at ESPN.com.

“That’s unbelievable, really, to bear that mental and physical burden and still play at a high level,” one scientist told Haberstroh.

It may be unprecedented — but it’s also nothing new.

How LeBron Compares

You probably know that LeBron is a physical freak, a superstar who’s played in a huge number of important games over his career.

What you may not know is how much more LeBron has played compared to other players in the league.

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for a blog called Hardwood Paroxysm that totaled up how LeBron’s career minutes compare to every other active NBA player. And it’s not even close.

Over the past five seasons, LeBron’s played a total of 18,087 minutes, counting the regular season and the playoffs.

What that means: Compared to every other player, LeBron’s played at least 15% more minutes than anyone else in the league. He’s played nearly 2,500 more minutes than Kevin Durant, the runner-up.

Basically, pick any other NBA player. Since 2010, LeBron has played the equivalent of at least one extra season compared to that player — and likely, a lot more.

And over the past ten seasons, the minutes gap widens — LeBron has a 20% edge on Joe Johnson (who’s played the second-most minutes) and a 30% edge on Tim Duncan (who’s played the tenth-most).


Keep in mind: LeBron’s playing time is extraordinary, but these are high-leverage minutes, too. He’s taking the burden of the offense, and receiving a physical pounding. He’s usually the best defensive player on the court for his team.

But look again at that list of NBA iron men.

Besides LeBron, it’s dotted with players who have missed significant chunks of their careers.

  • Andre Iguodala sat out almost 20 games last season, mostly because of a hamstring injury. (He also missed 15 games in the 2010-2011 season, too.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki missed nearly half of the 2012-2013 season with a knee injury.
  • Dwight Howard’s back problems are well-known and have changed his career the past four seasons.
  • Even Joe Johnson missed 25 games in 2007.
  • Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol — the list goes on.

The only other player on that list without a serious injury in the past decade? Tim Duncan — an athletic marvel in his own right — who played through a meniscus tear early in his career, and has been held to a strict minute count in recent years.

(As a result, Duncan’s played 8,509 fewer minutes than LeBron since 2005 — basically four seasons fewer worth of games.)

And as I wrote for Hardwood Paroxysm, LeBron essentially stands alone in league annals. While other players may have totaled up more minutes, it’s basically impossible to find another player who racked up so much high-leverage playing time compared to his peers.

Even Wilt Chamberlain, who led the NBA in minutes eight times between 1960 and 1968, only had a slight edge on Bill Russell.

The Injury-Minutes Connection

The correlation between more minutes and more injuries is pretty well-understood, at this point. (But if you don’t understand, see my FORBES post from last week.)

And superstars aren’t immune.

Kevin Durant, who’s played the second-most minutes in the NBA since 2010, missed most of this season with complications from an over-use injury.

Steph Curry, LeBron’s rival in the NBA Finals, has played almost 5,000 fewer minutes than James since 2010 — basically, the equivalent of two seasons — because of his chronic ankle injuries.

Even Michael Jordan suffered his own over-use injury — a broken foot — that forced him to miss most of his second season.

Yet LeBron has somehow avoided the career-changing, torque-related injuries that have plagued his peers. While he took off two weeks this season to deal with a variety of aches and pains, his most persistent injury nemesis is cramps — an oddly pedestrian problem for an athlete who’s otherwise superhuman.

LeBron’s resilience is one reason why his teams benefit so much from his greatness; his ability to avoid injuries means that he can stay on the floor, making his mark on the game.

And while it’s not clear how he does it (Is it his strength? His genes? His recovery method?), we tend to take LeBron’s presence for granted.

But I’d argue LeBron’s unprecedented resilience is its own greatness. The NBA has never seen anything like it.

And as fans, we haven’t either.

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From the archives:

Dan Diamond speaks with Dan Patrick about the NFL’s troubles with head injuries
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Source: Forbes