LeBron James may indeed have some grand plan in mind to impart wisdom on his wayward Cavaliers teammates. Yet as it stands, the Cavs’ problems are more material than LeBron’s demonstrations. The talents of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have yet to come together in a way that’s conducive to winning basketball, at least partly because Cleveland needs time as much as any lesson. This too shall pass. There’s too much compatible talent and collective intelligence in Cleveland to yield a sub-par offense long-term. But for the moment, the Cavs play as strangers – distinct individuals so far only paying lip service to the notion of a greater process.
James is not exempt from criticism in this particular regard, even as he remains the best basketball player in the universe. In alternation, James’ play has been overly blunt (driving headlong into multiple defenders) or completely removed (parking on the weak side of the floor). Neither serves Cleveland well, and that LeBron has fallen to those extremes is in itself symptomatic of an offense riddled with frustrations. Characterizing James as a sage veteran above the disorder very much misses the point: LeBron is in the thick of what ails the Cavs.
"I've had two games where I've played a little passive and been more of a set-up guy and it's resulted in two losses,” James said, via ESPN.com. “And I've had a game where I've been very aggressive and we won. Is winning the ultimate thing? Or us being the best (team) we can be (as a whole) or winning one game? It's something that's going on in my mind right now, I'm trying to figure out."
In real time that process is stifled and imprecise. Tuesday’s game against the Blazers saw the Cavs’ offense fold into over-dribbling and ambitious jump-shooting. Wednesday brought a loss to the Jazz earned through wanting defense and dull, predictable offense. Many of the pick-and-rolls run were lifeless – straight-line sequences executed from the top of the floor without much energy or inspiration. Those set plays Cleveland did run were largely productive, but a touch deliberate. The through-line for all of the above was a lack of adaptable fluidity. It’s clear that the Cavs’ best players know how to create for themselves when necessary. Where they’ve come up short is in those measures of read and react that stretch beyond a single decision.
A pick-and-roll between James and Love, for example, might see James draw in both defenders before setting up Love at the three-point line. If the shot is there, Cleveland will take it. If not, Love stalls with a pump fake only to find that his driving lane has vanished and his teammates have kept still. A possession grinds to a halt. The best NBA offenses are made great through the whirring potential of the next play – one advantage leads to another, creating another, opening up a quality shot attempt. The Cavs don’t have the chemistry or familiarity to pull that off, nor — in some cases — the inclination. It’s a bit startling the degree to which this team is willing to settle for half-measures. Irving will break down the first line of defense only to settle for an 18-footer. Love will draw a defensive switch but won’t see the ball in the post against a smaller opponent. Decisions are made a full beat too slow, sapping possible scoring possessions of their natural momentum.
Some of that is selfishness, the sporting sin of which Irving and Dion Waiters stand accused. The ball inarguably sticks with those two more than it should. Even at his most dazzling (and Wednesday's 34-point outing came close), Irving has a tendency to put so much emphasis on breaking down his defender that he loses sight of a possession’s greater goals (he finished with zero assists). Talent goes a long way in the NBA, but the ideal is to refine a pattern of ball movement to the point that the system does the work. To this point Irving has refused to let go, surrendering control only when his initial moves fall flat or on those plays where James is set to initiate the offense. He passes some, yet it’s telling that Irving has averaged only 8.0 assist opportunities per game according to data from NBA.com’s SportVU – only a hair better than Minnesota’s Mo Williams, who plays roughly half as many minutes (21.2 MPG to Irving’s 40.0).
Even more stunning: Despite adding two of the NBA's best passers in James and Love, Cleveland has somehow seen its assist opportunities as a team sharply decline from last season. The Cavs of yesteryear were an outfit lacking in overall talent and stuck with discordant pieces. They set the standard for stagnation and distrust. Yet through their dysfunction, those Cavs averaged seven more assist opportunities per game than this year’s team has thus far – equivalent to the difference between those teams ranked No. 1 (Atlanta) and No. 23 (Brooklyn) by that measure last season. It’s not impossible for a team to forge efficient offense from so little passing (Phoenix and Houston both ranked in the bottom five in assist opportunities last season). Yet doing so would seem to run contrary to Cleveland’s potential, breaking a trio of complex stars down to their most basic components
We’ll see far better play from Cleveland this season once those players involved feel out one another and once coach David Blatt drills his team into better rhythm. In the interim, the pressure mounts. With his arrival in Miami, James brought an expectation of greatness. His union with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh literally promised a dynasty, and from day one the Heat were held to that standard. The situation is more forgiving in Cleveland, though on a game-to-game basis the Cavs face even greater pressure to sort out their offense due to a burden Miami never bore: A dead-weight team’s defense.
Cleveland’s lack of a rim protector is painful, but only part of the problem. Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao offer little resistance against effective post players, as evident in their matchup against Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. Irving and Waiters have not played competitive defense to start the season, and Blatt’s few alternatives at either guard spot offer little in the way of defensive aptitude. Even James — a credible Defensive Player of the Year candidate in seasons past – has given the Cavs little on that end, too often coasting through plays while guarding no one in particular. Many opponents will score readily against Cleveland, and those that do will only draw more attention to a Cavs offense that struggles to keep pace with both expectations and its nightly opponents.
That pressure will fade as Cleveland figures things out, but not before giving the NBA debate machine plenty of fodder. This is far too early to approach the Cavs' basketball friction as a matter of any seriousness, especially when newly formed teams need trials to establish some collective identity. It would also be silly to use these early issues as grounds for some indictment of Irving, Love, James or Blatt, all of whom deserve the benefit of the doubt in ciphering an operation still so new and exciting.
At the same time, it would be foolish to dismiss Cleveland's faltering out of the gate as a function of small sample size. That the Cavs are 1-3 (and very nearly 0-4) is not some mathematical quirk or product of random chance. These are very real and legitimate growing pains – no less temporary than a distortion from sample size, perhaps, but of a fundamentally different sort. The Cavs have plenty to figure out. Fortunately, they have 78 games in which to find equilibrium.