MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- LeBron James has a bad back.
That has become clear at this point, and there are signs the issue could be worsening. But it is also important to understand James has been dealing with back issues of varying degrees for nearly a decade, and he's always managed it and continued to thrive.
There was a time when James worried his knees would someday betray him as they do so many athletes. That was long ago replaced by attention to the lumbar region of his spine, his lower back. He probably is going to have to fight it in some way or another for the rest of his career.
Naturally, the Cleveland Cavaliers are concerned about the situation. But they are not panicked. Neither is James. He has a plan in place to deal with it, and he believes it will not derail the Cavs' title hopes this season or into the foreseeable future.
At the moment, he is in the midst of a program to recover from an anti-inflammatory injection he received a few weeks ago. Wednesday night, a Cavaliers staffer bounced a large red exercise ball down the hall at FedExForum, a loaner from the Grizzlies. James has begun using a ball for pregame exercises to loosen his back. The night before, it was a blue exercise ball borrowed at the United Center in Chicago. This is a new addition to the routine, but just one of the techniques he has been using for some time; heating pads on his back while he's out of the game, during halftime and even in the layup lines have become a norm for James as he attempts to keep it loose.
Also when resting during games, he lays on the baseline using a towel for a pillow and watches the game on the scoreboard, calling to mind the habits of Larry Bird and Steve Nash and their in-game methods for handling back issues.
James said this week he is attempting to make adjustments to his posture to ease strain. A voracious reader and the franchise's most prized asset, James also has consulted top specialists.
That said, James believes he is making progress and getting better in recent days. He's in the midst of a cycle of recovery from the shot that he has not fully completed.
In the season opener, he had a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds and moved reasonably well. He also had a few moments when he appeared to lack explosion. He was on a breakaway when he was caught and stuffed by Tony Snell. Then in the final seconds he was blocked by Pau Gasol when he didn't seem to get good lift.
It was reminiscent of the first months of last season, when James played well but didn't have his typical bounce, the issues that caused him to address the back at that time.
But Wednesday he felt good enough to play in the second game of a back-to-back where he also seemed to have good energy and flexibility, as the Cavs blew out the Grizzlies. It was not a dominant performance, as he scored just 12 points, but not much more was needed on this night, as the Cavs won by 30 points.
"Listen, I don't know many people that can sit down for 10 days, practice for a day and a half and then come out and perform the way that he's performed his last two games," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "It's just another example of his uniqueness."
James has kept the details of what might be wrong with his back quiet, just as he kept it quiet that he needed an injection in his back last December. It was revealed that he got that shot only because the Cavs wanted to calm fears when it was revealed they gave him another one earlier this month. If he has ever needed this level of treatment in the past, it was never made public.
When James' regular back maintenance wasn't working as well as he wanted last season, the Cavs sent him for an MRI on New Year's Eve and saw some inflammation they didn't like. Though there has been some confusion as to how James' midseason break came about at the time, it has now become clear it was at the insistence of team doctors because he needed to recover from the injection. When he did, he played tremendously for the following six months.
Recovering from this round could end up having the same result, and that is what James is expecting. He has gotten good response to treatments in the past. He and the Cavs have attempted to make it clear this injection was planned, although its timing so close to the start of the season draws that into question.
But there's no doubting James' experience with treatment and plenty of evidence of positive results. In the first playoff series of his career, in 2006, James had a bout of spasms in his lower back. He also had a triple-double in his first playoff game and hit two game-winning baskets in that series.
In 2007, he began doing extensive stretching routines to try to strengthen and loosen his back muscles.
By 2009, he began to experiment with yoga, primarily to alleviate lower-back soreness that was bothering him. He has been a devotee to the techniques ever since, and he has won four MVP awards and been to five consecutive NBA Finals.
There is no question this is something that bears watching even if the reality is it's hardly a new issue. For a player like James who has logged more than 40,000 career minutes and avoided major injury along the way, it was inevitable that wear and tear was going to show up in an appreciable form at some point.
So here it is. And here is James, whose experience with this has him continuing to project optimism.
"I feel pretty good," James said. "It helps when we come out and play well as a team and I don't have to exert a lot of energy."