LeBron James had a simple message on Thursday afternoon.
You can understand where he was coming from. The previous night, the Cavaliers recorded only six assists in a two-point loss to the Jazz that dropped their record to 1-3. Few expected such an underwhelming start from a team that added James and traded for Kevin Love during the offseason to form one of the most scintillating collections of superstar talent in recent memory. A report saying James raised concerns about the offense with Kyrie Irving fueled more speculation.
"There's a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad habits been built up the past couple years," James told reporters after a discussion that was characterized as “healthy” by ESPN.com. "When you play that style of basketball, it takes a lot to get it up out of you."
On Friday, Cleveland looked more like the high-octane attack everyone glorified in hypothetical terms during the offseason. James paced the Cavaliers with 22 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, and Love added 19 points and 8 rebounds. Irving slashed his shot attempts, to 11 from 23 on Wednesday, and finished with 12 points to go with six assists. Seven Cavaliers finished in double figures, including Dion Waiters, who tallied a season-high 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
One win against a 1-4 Nuggets team that entered Friday ranked outside of the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency does not suggest the Cavaliers have cured all that ails them. Cleveland’s march toward peak offensive capability will unfold over the course of the season in a stop-and-start manner, with steps taken forward and backward as a matter of course.
The imagined endpoint for Cleveland’s offensive growth -- a destructive, scoreboard-shaking behemoth -- may not come this season. Or ever.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that the Cavaliers recognized and corrected for some of the issues that hampered them in previous games. With James asserting more control over the offense, there was better ball movement. The Cavaliers recorded 27 assists, 21 more than they did on Wednesday. James, Irving and Love struck a better balance on most possessions. Even more encouraging, the Big Three shot a combined 19 of 45 from the floor and Cleveland still won handily.
That’s not to imply the Cavaliers are better when James, Love and Irving aren’t posting higher scoring totals. Their counting statistics should take a hit in service of facilitating a more potent, free-flowing offense. But it’s nice to see signs that, on occasion, their teammates are capable of picking up the slack. Of course, it always helps when you have someone throwing half-court touch passes like this:
Many will point to the miscues (some of them more high-profile than others) that happened on Friday, but that’s a natural byproduct of the friction that comes with new, talented individual parts familiarizing themselves with one another.
By the same token, it may be premature to assume the progress observed Friday night will carry over into future games. The new-look Cavaliers’ way forward very well may be characterized by fits and starts. It could several multiple “healthy” conversations between LeBron and his teammates to smooth out some rough edges.
To point out one obvious example: Irving dished out six assists on Friday after handing out zero and scoring 34 points against Utah. Irving, Love and even LeBron will need to bend their games, to make tweaks to facilitate a more functional attack. Irving’s flashy dribbling and occasional possession hoarding along with Waiters’ shot-happy mentality are easy targets, but other players will need to make other, more subtle adjustments, too.
Team-building is an all-encompassing process that can’t be reduced to perceived consternation, reported or not, between two or three players. The Cavaliers molding their collection of parts into one functioning whole is a precursor to them realizing the grand expectations that came with the union of James, Love and Irving this summer. After Friday, Cleveland moves forward a little further along in its maturation, though regression could come just as easily the next time LeBron and crew take the floor.