LeBron James' absence highlights how far Cavaliers have left to go
In its formative play thus far, Cleveland has developed a clear dependence on LeBron James. The flow of its offense defers to James naturally, allowing him to isolate or run pick-and-roll as he sees fit. The team defense draws on James for execution and leadership, no matter that he's been shaky in both regards this season. This is LeBron's team. Never will that fact be more apparent than over the next two weeks or so, when nagging back and hamstring injuries will force the Cavs to play without the piece most fundamental to all they do.
There's a certain irony there. Explicit in James' reasoned return to the Cavs was the desire to build something of broader, lasting quality. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were thought to ease the burden on LeBron from the first stages of that process. Instead, both -- and Love in particular -- have been made accessories of a team grappling with lofty expectations. James became a safety net. He logged 37.5 minutes a night (fourth-most in the NBA) and took part in all of Cleveland's 11 most-played lineups. For a team desperate to find balance, James' presence offered a sense of stability.
Even then, the results of the LeBron-centric Cavs have been uninspiring. If an 18-14 record weren't evidence enough of their shortcomings, one need look only to the margin of Cleveland's victories. After adjusting for pace, the Cavs have outscored opponents by less than a point per 100 possessions on average -- a mark comparable to that of the Bucks. To rely so much on James and get what is essentially break-even basketball is a huge problem. That Cleveland is now also without Anderson Varejao (whose season ended with an Achilles injury) only makes matters worse, calling specific attention to a roster that was not built to handle injury.
The eleventh-hour construction of this Cavaliers team left it both shallow and reliant on inelastic players. Tristan Thompson is more energy player than breakout candidate. Shawn Marion and Mike Miller are still useful wings in the right NBA context, but neither has much stretch to their game beyond a specialist's role. To extend latitude to Dion Waiters is to openly tempt his worst inclinations. James Jones is not a reasonable option for big minutes. Yet Cavs coach David Blatt has little choice but to contort his roster to clear discomfort with those types so long as James is sidelined, with the closest thing to hope coming through Love's underutilization.
That a top 10 NBA player has been relegated to spot-up duty gives Cleveland something to work with at the least, though to this point Love has been marginalized both with LeBron in the game and without. His rate of shots, free throws, and turnovers per minute are virtually identical under both sets of circumstances. The reason for that is as you'd expect: Cleveland's top guards are dribble-happy to a fault, too often leaving the best half-court scorer in the lineup waiting on the block or a roll. It's gotten so bad that on some nights Love doesn't even bother with exasperation.
Perhaps losing James will come to clarify the priorities of Cleveland's offense in Love's favor. There just isn't any empirical basis in the Cavs' play this season -- whether quantified or observed -- to expect as much. Which, in effect, illuminates the glaring reality of James' injury: If Cleveland is going to keep its head above water, dramatic change will be needed. Love's usage is as good a place to start as any, both for how it might help the Cavs and what it might mean in Love's impending free agency. Beyond that, Cleveland has to hope that LeBron's absence gives a jolt to a complacent roster. For two months the Cavs have gone about their season as if they have the luxury of playing noncommittal basketball. In the East that may be true -- a fact that undoubtedly contributes to Cleveland's smug sense of safety. Subsistence over this two-week stretch and any conceivable improvement thereafter, though, will require a complete change in disposition.
Even that may not be enough to ensure competent basketball while LeBron sits. Without James this season, Cleveland has rated as the equivalent of a bottom-10 offense and near-league-worst defense. Account for Varejao's loss and the Cavs' slated performance starts to look even more grim. Factor in a West-and-road-heavy stretch and every game on the schedule appears losable. This is a team that in its desperation leaned on Jones, Brendan Haywood, A.J. Price and Joe Harris in Wednesday's game against Milwaukee -- a 16-point loss which Love and Marion also missed with minor injuries. Their returns (expected for Friday's game against Charlotte) will help cinch up the rotation, but any big-picture improvement will need to come from somewhere constitutional. LeBron or not, every week that goes by without such an epiphany shortens the clock on the Cavs' end-of-season prospects.
Cleveland can coast into the playoffs behind the talent it currently possesses if it so chooses. Accomplishing anything more will require actual growth and actual effort. Is this a team that can be bothered to get back in transition? Can the Cavs be expected to forego decent shots to create better ones? Whatever benefit of the doubt this team had runs thinner by the day. Now is the time to show something -- if only the simplest signs that a legitimate challenger for the title might be lurking within.