The Mortality of LeBron and the State of the Cleveland Cavaliers
By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (LeBron James) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This is not the fairy tale return home for LeBron James that we all imagined. This season was supposed to be about the kid coming back and making good on a promise to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964 (when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship), it was about truly cementing his legacy as the greatest player of his generation, it was about making Kyrie Irving a better player, it was about proving that Kevin Love wasn’t just a guy that put up good numbers on bad teams, it was going to be about helping guys like Dion Waiters improve their games and helping out an unproven NBA coach in David Blatt become successful in the league.
Almost half way through the season the Cavs are 21-20 and hold the 6th seed in the Eastern conference. Dion Waiters isn’t even on the team anymore, the Cavs flat out aren’t good defensively, the rumors are already in full swing that David Blatt doesn’t have the respect of his players, and most importantly the normally superhuman LeBron who carried the older Miami Heat team the past 2 years has looked well…..Normal. Not saying that a pedestrian normal LeBron James isn’t better than 90% of the NBA but superhuman LeBron is obviously what Cleveland is going to need to win a NBA championship.
Here is the fact…. LeBron is now in his 11th season in the league. He is 30 years old and has played a total of 34,481 minutes which is 14th among active players. The guys ahead of him? Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Andre Miller, Steve Nash, Jason Terry, Antawn Jamison and Joe Johnson. It’s hard to fathom that we’ve really been watching this guy play basketball since he was 18. I didn’t even really notice it until the Cavaliers rolled into Hollywood on Thursday to face Kobe Bryant and the struggling Lakers (a game that the Cavs won 109-102). In a truly fascinating game to watch the two future Hall of Famers went at it, and seemed to just enjoy the moment of playing against each other. They were joking back and forth, laughing and just seemed to be having fun. In the post-game interview with Rachel Nichols, LeBron said Kobe called him “the old guy” now. Think about that for a minute. Kobe Bryant is 36 now and clearly on the last legs of his amazing career. How many more years are we going to have of LeBron at this high level?? 3 years? 4 years? In that time span is it going to be possible for him to carry a young team like the Cavs night in and night out?
It’s a question that can’t really be answered right now. But something that we do know is that the Eastern Conference is definitely better than everyone thought it was going to be. The Atlanta Hawks are in first place in the Eastern conference by a wide margin. The Bulls with the addition of Pau Gasol and a healthy Derrick Rose are really good; The Raptors have improved from last year’s playoff team, John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards are another proven team. Right now you couldn’t say that the Cavs could beat any of those teams in a 7 game series.
So what exactly is wrong with the Cavaliers? Well similar to other star teams that have been assembled in the past 5 years (Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in Los Angeles and LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami) there is plenty of hesitation among the Big 3 in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are coming from situations where they were THE go-to guy and faced plenty of isolation situations. In the Cavs offense now, the ball is sticking way too much to one player as they try and find their shot. A team like the Cavs should be running more in the open court. For a team with a great finishing point guard like Kyrie Irving, an excellent rebounder and outlet passer in Kevin Love and one of the greatest runners of the floor of all time in LeBron James the Cavs should running most people they play out of the gym. Instead their PACE ranking (an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes) ranks 25th in the league and the constantly get bogged down running a half-court offense.
While this wouldn’t be a bad thing if their offense looked cohesive, unfortunately it hasn’t. The biggest fault is they still haven’t found a way to utilize Kevin Love in the post. Too often you’ll find Love camped out on the perimeter instead of in the post where he has a bevy of moves to either score or set up another teammate. His scoring is down to 17.7 points a game, but that was to be expected, more importantly his rebounding totals are just barely at 10 a game which is the second lowest per game average of his career. Similar to Chris Bosh in Miami, it’s going to be Kevin Love who has to make the biggest sacrifices to make this team work. He isn’t a primary ballhander like LeBron and Kyrie and needs other people to help him be effective. So far he just hasn’t looked comfortable on either side of the court.
New head coach David Blatt has also had trouble reaching his players. When Blatt was hired it was widely assumed that LeBron James was still going to return to Miami and give it another run with Bosh and Wade. Blatt has no prior NBA coaching experience, but has been a head coach in Europe for over 10 years. In 2014 his Maccabi Tel Aviv team won the Euroleague championship and cemented his legacy as one of the most successful American coaches in European basketball history. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into respect from his players, especially his superstar LeBron James. Back in December when asked if he thought Blatt was the right fit to coach the team LeBron said: “Yeah, he’s our coach, I mean, what other coach do we have?” Not exactly a ringing endorsement from your best player, who is coincidently also the de-facto GM. LeBron James wanted the Cavs to get Kevin Love, so they went out and traded Andrew Wiggins for him, they signed Mike Miller and James Jones because they were close with LeBron in Miami, and they were in pursuit of Ray Allen. Part of the problem is the large amount of moving parts the Cavaliers have gone through. Their starting center Anderson Varejao is out for the year, they recently traded Dion Waiters for JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, and combine all this with trying to mold 3 superstar players together can be a challenge for any coach. But as we all know in sports, the coaches are always the first ones to get fired.
On the bright side, the Cavs have looked better since LeBron has returned. The King has averaged 33.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in the last 3 games as the Cavs have won two straight, including a solid win against a good Los Angeles Clippers team on Friday night. They still play in the Eastern conference which while still more competitive than it was last year, is still very much wide open. Proven perimeter defender Iman Shumpert should be back in a week or two which will give them a boost defensively and during the past 3 games the Cavs also looked like they were actually having fun playing together. In a long NBA season the Cavaliers still have plenty of time to get it together. Let’s just hope we can still witness LeBron fulfill that promise he made to Cleveland last summer before his clock runs out.