When things are going well for LeBron James and the Cavs, it looks like they're having more fun than anyone in the league. There are 70–foot outlet passes, buckets from all over the floor, strange role players overachieving, and games being broken wide–open. At the end of those fourth quarters, LeBron radiates the sort of carefree cockiness that makes sense for one of the best players the NBA has ever seen. The rest of the team is laughing and launching threes, and everything looks way too easy. It's great.
When things break down, it all goes the other direction. Shots stop falling, the defense looks a step slow, role players become scapegoats, LeBron becomes distant and hard to read, postgame pressers feature passive aggressive sniping, and every Cavs conversation becomes a First Take segment. It all begins to look amazingly bleak.
This back and forth—between "this is why you never doubt LeBron" euphoria and "fire Ty Lue and here are six Kevin Love trades" despair—is the rule for the LeBron experience. Beginning in Miami and especially through this second stint in Cleveland, his teams come with the highest highs and the lowest lows of anyone in the league. And in case there was anyone who missed that pattern along the way, this season in Cleveland has made it impossible to ignore.
The peaks and valleys are more obvious this year for two reasons. First, in Year 15, LeBron is at the height of his powers on offense. His perimeter shooting has improved while his passing remains as incredible as ever. He's in complete control of the game at all times, and the league's move to small ball has only enhanced all of his advantages. Statistically speaking—82 games, 27.5 PPG, 9.1 APG, 8.6 RPG, 54% FG, 36.7% 3FG—he had a very good case for MVP.
In a more abstract sense, it feels like we're watching LeBron in the most enjoyable phase of his career. He's the smartest player in the league, he's got the confidence of a Hall of Famer with nothing left to prove, and he's still got enough athleticism to capitalize on all his psychological advantages. He's like Old Man Kobe—cranky as hell, still thinks he's better than everyone, and too accomplished to care what anyone thinks. But unlike 2014 Kobe, LeBron really is better than everyone. Offensively, he might be more effective than he's ever been.
Next to this LeBron golden age, this year's Cavs roster is more ordinary than any team he's had this decade. Against the best teams in the league, there's no more built-in talent advantage. Between a mediocre defense, creaky point guards, and an inconsistent frontcourt, there are real cracks in the foundation that should make every Cleveland fan concerned. But then, just when it looks like the house of cards is about to collapse, LeBron gets busy.
He exhumes Jeff Green and makes him useful. He gets guys like Cedi Osman and Rodney Hood involved. He hits Kevin Love with a cascade of wide–open looks. He rebounds, and he distributes, and then he drops 30 or 35 just to make it 100% certain the Cavs aren't losing. I'm thinking specifically of this Raptors game from a few weeks ago (35 points, 17 assists, 7 rebounds), but there are a dozen other examples from this season in Cleveland. This year's Cavs aren't beating good teams without LeBron having that sort of game and that makes it clear we're watching a player everyone will be talking about for the next 30 years. And mostly, this means we've gotten to enjoy a bunch of legendary LeBron nights.
So those nights have provided the peaks in Cleveland this year—nights where the Cavs successfully cheated death, everyone jokes about the Jeff Green renaissance, builds statues for Cedi Osman, and sincerely appreciates that we're watching one of the best players ever.
As for the valleys: obviously, Game 1 against the Pacers was a textbook example. In the first game of the playoffs, at home, the Cavs brought the energy of a team playing a Sunday matinee on the second leg of a back-to-back. It's still sort of inexplicable. The defense was destroyed in the first quarter, LeBron refused to shoot for the first 10 minutes, and Cleveland finished the game a ghastly 8–34 from three.
The vibes were bizarre throughout the game. LeBron looked increasingly checked out as the loss unfolded, and the rest of the roster just looked flat. Victor Oladipo was the best player on the court. Myles Turner was better than Kevin Love, who took just eight shots. Bojan Bogdanovic outplayed every Cavs role player. Aside from one run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, it was one of those games that generated all kinds of perfectly reasonable speculation about what will happen this summer.
This is part of the LeBron experience, too. Because for all the games where he reminds everyone he's the best player of his generation, there are others where it looks like he's on autopilot. Whether he's trying to prove a point, feeling out the opposition, gauging what his teammates can do, or (understandably) a little bit too tired to carry everyone, sometimes LeBron just doesn't quite bring it.
In those games, all the other flaws in Cleveland become impossible to ignore. That's when the roster looks overwhelmed. Then, everyone wonders what a GM can do to fix the problems, who's getting traded, and whether LeBron will ultimately leave in free agency and render the conversation irrelevant. The weight of those questions is what makes every Cavs loss so much darker than, say, a Warriors or Rockets loss. Especially this year, before this summer.
But if this season's highs and lows have been more extreme, I'm not sure the general rhythms of the Cavs experience have been all that different. LeBron brings a level of scrutiny that doesn't exist anywhere else in the league. Likewise, he's such a force of nature that when he's frustrated, everyone's frustrated. When he's checked out, so is everyone else. And next to lots of winning and three consecutive Finals trips, there have always been incredibly dark stretches in Cleveland. Remember those first few months with Dion Waiters? Remember Kevin Love fitting out?
A few months before the Finals in 2016, I saw the Cavs in D.C. the day after Steph Curry beat OKC on national TV. LeBron didn't play in that game, and he walked out of the stadium during the fourth quarter. In his absence, Kyrie and the Cavs were blown out by a lottery-bound Wizards team. Afterward, in a tense locker room, J.R. Smith deadpanned, "We gotta figure out what's wrong with us."
And last year: Cleveland finished the regular season with a defense even worse than this season's Cavs. That team lost 14 of its final 24 games, including a Hawks loss where Kyrie and LeBron blew a 26-point fourth–quarter lead a week before the playoffs began. There were "Is this the end of the Cavs?" questions every week for the final three months of last year, and they weren't quite as ridiculous as they sound now. The problems were real, and the lack of energy was unmistakable. Just like Game 1 Sunday.
Cleveland should still beat the Pacers. Indiana can't outscore this Cavs team, and for the rest of the series, it's unlikely the Cavs will have a worse offensive night than they did in Game 1. Ty Lue can use more of Larry Nance. LeBron will be better. A few big Kevin Love games can help tip the scales even further. There are a lot of factors that should weigh in Cleveland's favor as things move forward.
Beyond this Pacers series, if the Cavs survive, it's hard to feel confident about any outcome from there. Last year's Cavs went 12-1 through the East, but this year's team is dealing with tougher competition and working with less firepower. Anything is possible. A loss to the Raptors wouldn't be that shocking, while another Finals trip is always on the table if LeBron's on the court.
The only thing I'd definitely bet on is several more dramatic swings between LeBron James triumphalism and full–blown panic over a title contender that's counting on Jeff Green and Rodney Hood. This is just how it works with this team. These Cavs will be Cavs-ing until the bitter end. Sometimes it will be ugly, and other times it'll be wonderful. And while the entire sport wonders about LeBron's future this summer, every other week is a testament to the madness that has defined this experience from the beginning