Are Cavs ruining their No. 1 asset? CLEVELAND—If you watch the nightly highlight reels and listen to the hype, you'd think LeBron James's ascendance to basketball supremacy is a gimme, like Tiger Woods from six feet for the trophy. James, the Cleveland Cavaliers wunderkind, is the best 21-year-old in the game's history, to be sure. He's already among the NBA's top handful of players at the same age Michael Jordan was a college junior. And he's on course to lead his team to the playoffs in his third season, which is something Jordan didn't do until he was four years older. But James, as the long season winds on, also looks en route to exhaustion. He has played more minutes than any NBA player this year, and his workload only gets heavier. He's averaging 42.5 minutes a game, but he played 44.6 minutes a night in February. And heading into a back-to-back pair of games with the Raptors that began last night in Cleveland and continues tonight in Toronto, James was averaging 46 minutes per game in three outings in March. When James tweaked his ankle last night, he sat out the first quarter's final 27 seconds and a whopping 2:24 of the second quarter. But those rests — and a one-minute breather in the fourth quarter of the Cavs' 106-99 win — were his only breaks. So maybe the question is: When will he break? Sure, he's a physical marvel with a linebacker's body and a power lifter's strength. But consider this: Jordan was a physical freak lauded for his endurance and durability. But even in His Airness's most labour-intensive season he averaged 40.4 minutes a game, up from 38.3 minutes for his career. Butch Carter, the former Raptors coach who presided over the rise of a bound-for-greatness young all-star named Vince Carter, has seen this trend before. In an interview last year the coach linked Vinsanity's decline to overuse. "I think the downfall of Vince was the year after I left and they started playing him 46, 47 minutes a game," he said. "It was stupidity, absolute stupidity. Young horses, 1-year-olds, don't race in the Kentucky Derby." The former coach, in the same interview, went on to observe that he saw as the same trend developing with James in Cleveland. Donyell Marshall, the former Raptor who is now James's teammate, doesn't necessarily disagree. "It doesn't matter if you're 21, 24 or 35 — 44 or 45 minutes a night is going to wear on you," said Marshall last night. "Especially a guy who is going to play on the (U.S. national team) for the next three (summers)." James has a standby response for matters of minutes: "I don't get tired," he says. But he does. He has been uncharacteristically horrible in fourth quarters of late. A couple of weeks back James played all but 14 seconds of a home game against the Washington Wizards and missed all eight of his second-half field-goal attempts. In a rare moment, he was briefly booed by the Cleveland crowd. Last night at Quicken Loans Arena James — who typically scorches the defensively pitiful Raptors — looked sluggish in a 5-for-17 shooting performance. He scored just 17 points and played 44 minutes. Then again, he added 12 rebounds and eight assists. But even his coach has conceded concern. "I am concerned about his minutes? Do I wish I was doing a better job with that? Yes," said Mike Brown, the Cleveland coach. "I think about it all the time. But it's one of those things where he's young, I need him to play, we need him to play. And he's going to play if I feel the need. You can't necessarily expect Brown to ration James's minutes. He's a rookie coach who might not become a sophomore coach if he doesn't win now. It's management and ownership — the guys responsible for the long-term health of the assets — who need to step in. But again, the Cavs have a rookie general manager in Danny Ferry and a neophyte owner in Dan Gilbert, both of whom want success in short order. They can only hope they don't pay for today's gains with down-the-road pain. --------------- What ya'll think?