- The Cavaliers have struggled to upend the Pacers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. LeBron James is always the focial point in Cleveland, and all eyes are on him once again this postseason.
The Cavaliers haven't been the Cavaliers this season, and that has never been more obvious than in their first-round series against the Pacers. While Cleveland is knotted in a 2–2 series, they could easily be down 3–1, even with LeBron James posting incredible numbers and playing extended minutes. The Open Floor podcast takes a closer look at those Cavaliers and their star, LeBron James.
Andrew Sharp: We were asked this: 'LeBron James is a top-three player of all-time, but what players has he made better? Kyrie better in Boston; Kevin Love better in Minnesota; Larry Nance, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood now being called his worst ever supporting cast; Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith; Wade and Chris Bosh, they won a championship, but did he make them better players?'
Let me just say this, and this is one of my least favorite conversations involving Hall-of-Fame level guys, because it's sort of the straw man that you can bring up with almost player outside of Tim Duncan. You can criticize almost every great player and ask whether they made others better, and it's just constantly used to put other guys down. What do you think about this?
Ben Golliver: I think... Who screened this question? You? You screened this question? Look, LeBron makes his teammates better. There's no doubt about it. The distinction we need to make is, do his teammates' statistics suffer when they play with him, and the answer is, 'Yes, they do.' He has a super-high usage and he scores like 26 points per game his entire career. They takes a lot of shots and a lot of possessions to do that, so if you're an A-list guy, your numbers are going to take a hit. But I think the Chris Bosh example is great. Would you rather be a guy who is struggling for tough twos on the block, going nowhere in the playoffs or would you rather be spoon-fed open face-up shots and able to concentrate more of your effort on defense and get to play for a championship team twice. That's a pretty
Sharp: He was going to be 24 and 10 and a first-round exit for like 10 years and then he turned into a Hall of Famer with LeBron. So Bosh is probably a bad example for this guy's question.
Golliver: I think he made Wade better, you look at all the shooters. He's kept so many shooters employed, including Kyle Korver, Mike Miller, James Jones, the list goes on and on. I also think the secondary scorers being able to freelance off of LeBron and enjoy one-on-one coverage helped Kyrie Irving, Mo Williams, some of these other guys have definitely benefited from LeBron's presence as well. So I reject wholeheartedly the entire premise of this question. I think if we're trying to say, 'Hey, is LeBron a little bit too big of a presence ego-wise in his locker room?' That is a fair criticism. To say LeBron does not make his teammates better when he's one of the top two or three passers in NBA history is ridiculous.
Sharp: OK, I agree with everything you said. However, you're right, I do screen the questions, and I included this because, as you'll recall, I went on a mini-rant to you in our little group chat on Sunday night during the fourth quarter of Cavs-Pacers. Watching LeBron right now is really tough. I'm not dinging his game over the last 15 years and not claiming he doesn't make players better, but I also think that he bares some responsibility for the current state of the Cleveland offense. He's been so good and so important to that team for the last four years. He's basically been the focal point of everything they do well, and now it seems like he's kind of checked out. There's a lot of one-on-one, iso fadeaways, and to his credit, he's now making those shots, which is insane. He's added that to his repertoire, but he's not really doing everything else.
For the last four years in Cleveland, what's made him amazing is his ability to drive and kick and open up the whole offense for the Cavs. That's the way he sort of insists on playing, that's the way Cleveland is used to playing and now he's just sort of standing there. When he doesn't have the ball, everything sort of stops and Jordan Clarkson is isoing to nowhere or J.R. Smith is pulling up. The Cavs' offense is kind of surreal right now, and I think LeBron is a big part of it.
Golliver: Two thoughts: First of all, we should criticize LeBron for taking Kyrie Irving for granted. I think he did that. I think if he had managed that relationship better, Kyrie wouldn't have wanted out and there could have been a way they made that work. That problem has really come home to roost here, because one really good way to notice LeBron is taking possessions slow or biding his time or maybe getting a little stagnant or over reliant one the one-on-one out of the post is because you don't have Kyrie Irving as one of the best one-on-one players to kind of distract you when LeBron is catching his breaks during games. He talked about that after Game 4, how he's already in sort of an energy conservation mode because he has to play 46 minutes a game, including the entire second half of playoff games because they just take him off the court or they fall apart completely. The postseason on/off numbers really reflect that. They don't have any lineups without LeBron that are successful, and they've really struggled to shoot the ball.
I think their offense would look slightly better if some of the supporting guys, specifically Kevin Love, were shooting better. They haven't really gotten completely unlocked, and I think it can look better than it has. But I chalk up a lot of what you're describing to fatigue from LeBron. There was that one blow-by he had right at the end of the fourth quarter, where he took it all the way to the basket. I think he took it past Bojan Bogdanovic and got a key layup, and when I watched him make that layup I was thinking, 'Wow, where was that burst the previous 16 minutes of the second half?' And I think the answer was that he was saving that energy because he knew he was going to need it for later, and so he's almost doing a little bit of rope-a-dope.
That's a dangerous game to play, that's playing with fire, but there's no question to me that they're leaning on him too heavily, and you called it cracks. To me they've got craters showing. They should be down 3–1 to the Pacers. If Indiana had been competent at all, they would've won that game. They went away from everything that was working for them, and Oladipo just started jacking 35 footers for no reason at all. LeBron should be breathing a huge sigh of relief and catching up on his sleep for the next two days, because he's going to have to go out there and play another 46 minutes in Game 5.
Sharp: I don't know it, it kind of bugs me for some reason. And it's not an anti-LeBron thing, but it's just the way the narrative is being spun. Everyone is going to talk about how he just doesn't have the help in Cleveland this year, and to a degree that's completely true, but I also think there's something to be said for the idea that he's not putting guys like Clarkson and Rodney Hood and even Love in a position to succeed the way he has in other contexts, even during this season and certainly over the past few years. It could absolutely be fatigue. It could also be that LeBron is so good that he can coasts in spots and check out and still get his numbers. That's happening too to a degree.
Golliver: I think he's also frustrated. I think he realizes that this doesn't look like a championship team. I mean, even the most optimistic LeBron supporting person can't look at the Cavaliers as they've played through the first four games of that series and say this is a team that could win the title. They just don't look like it. There are so many blown defensive coverages, and I think that's where it gets frustrating. If you're a superstar-level layer, you're playing 46 minutes per night and you're seeing guys get left wide open for corner threes because coverage broke down or someone didn't help or didn't rotate, that's when you are going to start to this woe is me type of thing. And I think LeBron does have a little bit of that to his personality, too.
Sharp: Traditionally, there have been moments and stretches in his career where he is just sort of disengaged sometimes, and I think that might be happening very quietly and could all flip in Game 5. They'll be at home and they should beat this Pacers team. But one thing that's funny is the Cavs defense is now pretty good in the East, at least their playoff numbers thus far. And I think that says less about the Cavs and more about this Pacers team, because there are a lot of opportunities for Indiana to go and win this series, and they just don't have many guys. I like Sabonis, but outside of Oladipo there's just not much there. This team deserves a ton of credit for overachieving but I don't think that they're very good.
Golliver: You know how Pacers fans get upset that there's not a lot of national attention and support for their team...
Sharp: And that's why I'm treading lightly. I don't want to be mean and they've been awesome, and everyone in Indiana should be pumped about the state of that team.
Golliver: But I think it goes both ways too, because Nate McMillan, if he was Ty Lue or Luke Walton or Steve Kerr or Greg Popovich... He lit his team up after Game 4. He called them out for hero ball shots, he basically said they played basketball the wrong way, there is no way they're going to win if they keep playing that way. And it doesn't end up becoming that big of a story because 'It's just the Pacers, they're basically supposed to lose to LeBron.' So you benefit, Indiana. You're flying under the radar for the good and for the bad. You don't have 50 reporters at your practice saying, 'Oh, Victor, Nate McMillan was basically calling you a ballhog.' That stuff just doesn't happen.
I just want to underscore everything Nate McMillan said. If Indiana simply insured that they passed the ball five times on every play I think they would score every time. Cleveland's defense will break down and Domantas Sabonis was getting so much around the basket from simple dump-off passes. Why he came out at the end of Game 4, I don't really know. I thought that was a mistake by Nate, but if you just keep the ball moving you are going to get open shots. This is not Bojan Bogdanovic turning into Drazen Petrovic. They're getting good looks and Cleveland's been giving up lots of points all season long and that's why it was so frustrating in Game 4. Indiana should be up 3–1 and we should all just be melting down over the end of the LeBron era. That's what we should be doing on this podcast right now, but we can't because they blew the game.