As Cleveland hits perhaps its toughest stretch of the season, though, that help is dwindling.
The Cavaliers could be without three starters on Friday when they host Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets, leaving the task of extending their perfect home record to 20-0 squarely on James’ shoulders.
James has put together a convincing case for NBA MVP honors while leading Cleveland to the best start in franchise history. He’s averaging 27.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists, and has vastly improved at the defensive end, turning the Cavaliers (30-7) into a likely championship contender.
James’ second triple-double of the season came Wednesday in Memphis, and briefly propelled Cleveland to the best record in the NBA. Thursday in Chicago, though, the Cavaliers’ outlook grew cloudier.
Starting guard Delonte West scored 11 points in the game’s first 10 minutes before breaking his right wrist, an injury that could keep Cleveland’s top 3-point shooter out of action for a while.
“They told me I’m going to be out a few weeks,” said West, who is left-handed. “I really don’t use my right hand, anyway.”
The Cavs were already without center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (broken ankle) and Ben Wallace (intestinal flu). Playing with a cold, James had perhaps his worst game of the season, shooting 8 of 28 and committing eight turnovers in a 102-93 overtime loss to the Bulls.
“I absolutely had no lift tonight,” James said. “Every time that happens, when I get sick, I miss layups - layup after layup, things I usually make.”
The loss of West may be particularly damaging given the Cavaliers’ challenging upcoming schedule. After New Orleans (23-12) visits, Cleveland heads west for a four-game trip beginning against the Los Angeles Lakers. Upon heading back east, games in Orlando and Detroit await on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1.
West, the team’s best perimeter defender, would have been especially busy against Paul. Making an MVP case of his own, Paul leads the Hornets with 20.8 points per game and his 11.2 assists per contest are the most in the NBA.
Paul already torched the Cavaliers for 24 points and 15 assists in a 104-92 win on Nov. 1, but his most recent game may have been his best of the season. Paul narrowly missed a rare quadruple-double Wednesday in Dallas, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and seven steals as the Hornets rallied in the second half to beat the Mavericks 104-97.
“You don’t expect a triple-double every night and you don’t expect him to have seven steals, either, but it was one of those games where he was all over the place,” New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. “He’s a very special player.”
The Hornets have won four of five against Cleveland even when the Cavs had a healthy Ilgauskas in the middle. With Ilgauskas out and Wallace potentially sidelined as well, New Orleans’ Tyson Chandler and David West should be able to control the paint.
Chandler, who’s battled injuries all season, is finally healthy and has put together three consecutive double-doubles for the first time in 2008-09.
Aside from Paul, who’s averaged 19.2 points and 12.0 assists in his last five games against Cleveland, West has also thrived against the Cavaliers. He’s averaging 24.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in his last four contests in the series.
James is averaging 21.4 points and 8.2 assists in his last five games against New Orleans.