Look left down Main St. and there was James curled up in silent protest, hoping that his younger teammates would learn to stand on their own two feet. Turn right, and there were Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson blowing defensive assignments, forcing contested jumpers and failing to match their opponents’ energy as the game slipped away. James never stepped in, and Cleveland fell all over itself in a 101-82 blowout loss to Portland on Tuesday.
The plan, it seems, was for James to avoid overexerting his four-time MVP influence so that his teammates can learn to play the right way on their own. That’s a bad plan. Cleveland’s younger players followed James’ detached lead right off the cliff. James deferred, and his teammates compensated by pounding the basketball. James floated on the perimeter, and his teammates enthusiastically chucked low-percentage shots. James never set the tone defensively in the second half, and his teammates allowed clean look after clean look for Portland’s sharpshooting guards.
It wasn’t until his post-game comments that James showed anything resembling fire, and even then his harsh assessment was delivered mostly with a smile.
“There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years,” James said, referring to the four straight lottery trips that Cleveland made following his 2010 departure for Miami. “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.”
Helping starts with fully processing the fact that many of his teammates might not know the difference between playing the way James envisions they should play and playing the way they always have during their professional careers. James surely understands that he is the best, smartest and most tested player in his locker room; he must also realize that those virtues aren’t transferrable by osmosis. The challenge for James now is to find the middle ground between allowing his teammates flounder and pushing them out of the way so that he can save the day.
On Tuesday, James explained his quiet night — 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting and zero points after halftime — by saying that he was “trying to instill what it takes to win” and that he understood the learning process could take “a couple months.” Similarly, Cavaliers coach David Blatt decried his team’s poor effort, shielding James from any of the blame.
“I don’t think we need to depend on [James] by himself,” Blatt said. “I think we have to help him. I don’t think we did that tonight … I don’t hold him responsible. We have to help him get looks. It’s not only about him.”
Without their franchise player directing the game flow, Irving, Waiters and Thompson all reverted to ingrained bad habits. Irving (nine points on an abysmal 3-for-17 shooting) went heavy on the flash and light on the substance, moving a lot but getting nowhere. Waiters (six points on 3-for-11 shooting and three turnovers) was loose with the ball and got lit up defensively. Thompson (10 points on 4-for-12 shooting and eight rebounds) tried and failed to score over longer defenders in isolation, often forcing the issue. Only Kevin Love (22 points on 7-for-14 shooting and 10 rebounds) made a truly positive impact.
Even though it’s early in the season for a group that hasn't had much time to gel, all of these struggles shouldn’t happen simultaneously. Irving welcomed James’ arrival with open arms this offseason because he wanted someone to handle the leadership burden. The undisciplined Waiters shouldn’t be allowed to freelance under any circumstances. Thompson appears to be a willing student but he needs a lot of work. These three require hands-on teaching, not after-the-fact observations from a bystander.
James has compared the Cavaliers’ current path to his stint with the Heat many times since he announced his return to Cleveland back in July. On Tuesday, he repeated that sentiment, tacking on a pretty simile for good measure.
“It’s like building a car from scratch,” James explained. “I’ve done that before. I hated the process, it got on my nerves, I sent it back to get repainted 100 times, and it came back and it wasn’t still done. Once it was completely finished, I was excited about it.”
The biggest difference between the situations, whether James realizes it yet or not, is James himself. Not everyone has the obsessive, internal drive to see a complicated project through to its completion. Not everyone is a perfectionist willing to send the car back the 101st time rather than settling for “good enough.” Not every player understands the intricacies of the game as deeply and innately as James does. Not every player has the same pure vision of basketball as a team game that James has cultivated since before he was a high school star.
Hopefully, after reviewing the game tape, the Cavaliers are able to process their strategic shortcomings and lacking effort. More importantly, though, James must reflect on his own indifferent play and its impacts on those around him.
This is the franchise, city and teammates that he chose. Everyone is turning to him to lead by example, on and off the court, because he’s proven over the years that he’s capable of doing just that. The only approach that will work with this group is the proactive one. James doesn’t need to be alpha and omega, King and coach, but he will need to drag this group to the top.