When LeBron James and Kevin Love joined the Cavaliers in free agency this summer, anyone who assumed they would set the league on fire right away was being unrealistic. An abundance of offensive talent under the control of a renowned European tactician sparked visions of a world-beating super team. James, Love and Kyrie Irving attacking defenses in concert promised to be devastating, if not borderline unstoppable. Bovada even listed the Cavaliers as title favorites, at 5/2, after the Love trade was finalized. The disclaimer? Cleveland’s new parts needed to learn how to play together first.
That process continued to play out Wednesday night, when the Cavaliers fell, 100-102, to the Jazz. Gordon Hayward drilled a stepback jumper at the buzzer after James scored six points in 10 seconds to erase a four-point lead in the final minute. James finished with 31 points, his second-highest total of the season (he had 36 against the Bulls last Friday). The loss dropped Cleveland to 1-3. Through four games, the revamped Cavaliers’ first season together appears to be unfolding in a similar manner, if only on the surface, to the Heat in 2010-11.
After signing James and Chris Bosh to form the Big Three with Dwyane Wade, Miami stumbled out of the gate with a 9-8 record, and doubts crept in about the viability of three stars playing together. It took time, but the Heat eventually found their stride, reaching four consecutive Finals and winning two championships. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what happened before the Heat enjoyed so much success: The Pat Riley will-he-or-won’t-he coaching rumors, James bumping into Spoelstra, all the overheated talk about how Miami would never win big.
This year’s Cavaliers may not deal with the same drama, but they will take their lumps before morphing into the championship contender everyone envisioned when James, Love and Irving joined forces this summer. After Tuesday night’s loss in Portland, in which James was held scoreless in the second half and finished with only 12 points, James implied he wasn’t imposing himself in the interest of letting his teammates work through bad habits.
“A lot of guys who are going to help us win haven’t played a lot of meaningful basketball games in our league. When we get to that point where every possession matters, no possessions off, we have to move the ball, share the ball, be unselfish, we’ll be a better team.
“A lot of bad habits have been built over the last couple of years," he continued. "When you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help.”
James was more assertive on Wednesday. He took 18 shots (he had 11 on Tuesday), sank all 12 of his free throw attempts, and, near the end of the game, he took over. One possession after burying a dagger from the left corner with 13 seconds remaining, James drew a foul beyond the three-point line and sank all three tries from the line. The Hayward dagger spoiled the Cavaliers’ comeback bid, but a two-point loss on a back-to-back was a far cry from the drubbing the Blazers laid on Cleveland last night.
More encouraging was James’ performance following his pre-game acknowledgement that he had been playing passive.
"It's a fine line," James said, according to ESPN.com. "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. 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. I definitely can't go into a game having 12 shot attempts. That's me personally."
Sometimes the game can look so easy for the Cavaliers and, more specifically, James. Take this possession in the first quarter. As Love pivots near the elbow while being guarded by Enes Kanter, he spots James trudging through the restricted area. James proceeded to plow Hayward out of his way with two steps and a not-so-subtle forearm shove, leaving the Utah small forward way out of position. Love then fed James for an easy layup.
Here’s another first-quarter possession, following a made layup from Hayward. Love fires an outlet pass near half-court to James, who attacks Favors and Kanter on the break. A slick bounce pass to Anderson Varejao leads to another easy layup.
Still, for as many possessions and transition opportunities James, Irving and Love capitalize on, it’s clear this team is still working through kinks. The Cavaliers finished with only six assists Wednesday. To put that into context, the Jazz had 26. Hayward alone dished out seven. Perhaps James' teammates misinterpreted his passivity comments as an excuse to heave low-percentage shots. Or maybe Cleveland’s complementary threats are still figuring out their roles in the offense. Whatever the case, possessions like these won’t maximize Cleveland’s strengths.
These things should work themselves out in time. It’s tempting to point out the Cavaliers’ flaws and imagine the worst-case scenario -- them falling drastically short of preseason championship expectations -- in lieu of considering what the finished product could look like come June. Wednesday night offered a reminder, even in defeat, that James can help atone for a lot of miscues.
Cleveland’s development in the coming months may get rocky over certain stretches, but a locked-in LeBron can help keep them on track.