When Tiger Woods was in his prime, the focus of his year was the majors. He gave them highest priority, gearing his regimen to attempt to peak in those four weeks.
Who knows how many tournament wins Woods might have left on the table with this strategy. Sometimes he would use the few nonmajor events he played in during the summer to practice shots he knew he’d need to hit in the next major. At some point, he had enough money and accomplishments that winning the Western Open again had only limited appeal.
Last season, LeBron James finished outside the top three in MVP voting for the first time since 2008. The previous two years, he finished third. It now has been four seasons since he last added an MVP trophy to his case.
Of course, he has played in the NBA Finals all four of those years. Because at this stage in his career, about to start his 15th season, the postseason is all he cares about. He sets his entire year up around peaking in April, May and June.
That’s why James, despite his slipping in the regular-season award voting, is No. 1 in ESPN’s #NBArank for a seventh consecutive season. No one else has ever held the spot.
Over the past several years, James has dialed back his intensity in the regular season, especially in the early months. He has taken more games off to rest. This as his competitors for the league’s highest honors, especially Russell Westbrook and James Harden, have been voracious in their pursuit of regular-season dominance.
It’s an impressive form of pacing, he averaged career highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7) last season while averaging the most points (26.4) in three years. But it’s pacing nonetheless.
Between the 2005-06 and 2012-13 season, his last MVP season, James won Player of the Month in November or December 11 times. He won the honor in February, March and April a total of eight times in that span.
Over the past four seasons, he has won the honor in the first two months of the season just twice. He has won it in the last three months of the season nine times. His methodical ramp-up is demonstrated by that transition alone.
Advanced stats tell the tale, as well. Between the 2008-09 season and the 2012-13 season — James won four MVPs in that five-year span — his player efficiency rating before the All-Star break averaged 30.3. After the break, it was 31.0, which is just astounding by the way. Over the past four seasons, James’ PER before the All-Star break averaged 26.7. After the break, it has leapt to 29.1.
When he was younger, James was otherworldly from the start of the regular season to the finish. Over the past few seasons, the path has been gradual. The data shows what the eye test does, effectively: Over the past few years, James often conserves energy early in the season and then hits the gas late.
This plan has merit. James had maybe the greatest NBA Finals of his career in 2016, his fresh legs in the last three games of that seven-game saga perhaps helping him assemble what might go down as his career masterpiece. This past June, he averaged a triple-double and shot 56 percent against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors in the Finals. His 33-point, 12-rebound and 10-assist averages go down as one of the greatest statistical performances in a series in the modern era.
Still, his starts seem to have cost him with MVP voters, who notice his sagging defense and lower-activity games during the time in the NBA calendar when the MVP race is typically framed. His sliding MVP finishes might present as implying that he’s getting passed by some younger players. (The MVP voting recently has irritated him, especially because he has taken on a leadership role in Cleveland that can’t be captured on spreadsheets.)
But he knows what he’s doing. His peers recognize it; last season he led everyone in the player voting for the All-Star Game. This summer, he was given the Global Impact Award in the Players’ Voice Awards.
#NBArank does too, as James stands at No. 1.
Tom Haberstroh contributed to this story.