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LeBron James has always been stuck in an experiment, by his own design.
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It’s what happens when you tool around in a Hummer during your senior year of high school, Sports Illustrated issues with your 16-year old face on the cover sliding around in the back, seven years before ham-fistedly announcing a free agent decision on primetime TV and 11 years before deciding to fully commit to bringing the first major pro sports championship to Cleveland in decades.
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Nobody is more aware of the September-to-June NBA grind than LeBron. He hasn’t missed the Finals since Kobe Bryant’s last turn as champion in 2010, which sadly seems ever so long ago. He’s vaulted past luminaries like Magic and Bird in total minutes played even in the months before turning 31, and he’s staring down the idea that Thursday night’s game against Milwaukee will be spun exactly seven months before the day Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals could be held.
Yes, he’s paid millions and, yes, he’s super-human. Still, Magic met Kareem at his first day of work. Larry met a similarly sterling cast of teammates and Michael Jordan spent the same years LeBron James was leading the league in minutes in goofing around with umbrellas while playing 30 games a year at North Carolina. Kobe Bryant entered the league straight out of high school, but he didn’t spend the first seven years of his career in a lacking, Shaq-less existence, as LeBron did.
(OK, LeBron did get Shaq in his seventh season. Diesel was 37 and rather tired at the time.)
This is why James, who put himself in credibility peril prior to the season by admitting that he wouldn’t mind a few more months off, is apparently pushing quite a bit when it comes to his newest and bluest supporting cast.
The entire Cavalier cast – be they incumbents or the newcomers general manager David Griffin deftly acquired midseason in 2014-15 – was allowed a bit of a honeymoon in James’ first year back in Ohio. Not only was the team given room to breathe in its first regular season together, but the squad’s first campaign as a near-whole was afforded a bit of leeway as Kevin Love’s separated shoulder and Kyrie Irving’s broken kneecap left the rotation overmatched in its first Finals appearance since an outclassed Cavs loss to the San Antonio Spurs all the way back in 2007.
This time around, James wants his teammates to know that they’re not along for the ride – even five months after watching LeBron average 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals in the team’s six-game Finals loss.
They’re going to have to be “the ride.” LeBron started with Kevin Love, and now he’s moved on to going hard at center Timofey Mozgov.
“A lot of it is predicated on how much he means to our success, how big of an impact he made once he got here last year. And when you see that type of impact, you expect it. And you expect it every single night and you expect it consistently, but I may have to change my approach how I lead him. I think I’ll figure a way out. I’ll figure another method.”
“It’s like if you have multiple kids. You understand how you can’t raise your kids all the same way. They all have different personalities. They have different methods and outlooks on life, so you can’t lead everyone the same way. And when you figure that out, it’s a lot easier on you.”
(Timofey is going to be fine, by the way. He doesn’t look as good as he did last year, pre-surgery, and his rebounding rate is down. However, his work around the rim – however awkward – is producing just about the same results. And it’s November.)
Mozgov, who has been a Cavalier for less than a year, was hardly coddled prior to 2015-16. Still, he was afforded patience as he adapted to his new starting role, he was celebrated in the postseason for helping overcome Love’s absence, much was written about the expected massive contract he’ll take in during 2016 as a free agent, and he was afforded (accurate) excuses for a slow start due to his offseason knee injury.
This isn’t the Western Conference, where a 4-7 start can cost a coach his job and a bad run of injury luck in only three weeks of play can knock a team out of the playoff picture. The Cavaliers are currently tied at the top of the East with an 8-3 Chicago Bulls team that hardly looks like a contender at this point – it needed a 2005-era performance from Kirk Hinrich as X-factor to knock of the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.
Atlanta is admirable, Detroit, Toronto and Washington are intriguing, and there’s no reason a motivated Bulls team can’t knock off the Cavaliers in a seven game series, but this is Cleveland’s conference to lose. And yet, for all the warnings that James might ride easy until the leaves returned, LeBron is pushing things.
He’s going junior high football coach on us all. From WKYC.com:
“[James] expressed his frustration by saying the Cavaliers (8-3) were "too relaxed, too nice. Just too nice" in the 104-99 setback at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
"I don't know what it is, reading too much about who we are, what we should be doing," James said. "We haven't done anything. We didn't win anything. We lost. We lost in The Finals, so that's enough motivation for myself. I think we need to understand that we lost in The Finals. We didn't win, and the team that beat us looks even more hungry than we are, so it shouldn't be that way.
"You can't play down to the competition at this point because we're not better than anyone in the league. We've still got so much work to do at this point. We shouldn't feel entitled. That's what I'll continue to say. We're not entitled to a win. We're not entitled to being the Eastern Conference champions. That's last year. It's a totally different year, and until we figure that out, we're going to continue to put ourselves in position to lose basketball games."
Road losses to Milwaukee and Detroit are hardly inexcusable, but the Cavaliers did not look great in defeat. The Pistons outscored Cleveland by 11 in the fourth quarter, and a miserable defensive team in Milwaukee managed to force what at times looked like a listless Cavalier crew into endless turnovers in the Bucks’ win.
The Cavs are second to last in the NBA when it comes to knocking down free throws, and LeBron (at 61 percent) has shot more free throws than anyone else on the team. No other player has attempted half as much as his 86 attempts. J.R. Smith, starting shooting guard, apparently retired sometime last July when he realized that he wouldn’t be getting a raise. Kevin Love, thankfully, has been utilized more often and his usage rate his ticked up but he’s shooting 41 percent from the field and he’s working up a Kobe Bryant/Derrick Rose-esque batch from behind the arc – 6.8 three-pointers a game, 32 percent so far.
This is what is supposed to happen. Love, figuring it out. Irving, out. Mozgov, rehabbing. Mo Williams, somehow, saving things. Matthew Dellavedova, giddy. Iman Shumpert, out; but possibly ahead of schedule. Coach David Blatt, listened-to.
LeBron James averaging nearly 39 and a half minutes per contest over five games in the second week of November isn’t ideal, but this is still an 8-3 team. The Golden State Warriors might be putting on a season for the ages and the Bulls might be tied with Cleveland while Tony Snell starts at forward, but it’s bloody November.
The Cavs are going to take on Milwaukee at home on Thursday in a game LeBron will mean mug in, a game we’ll forget by the time April comes around. It’s good that he’s playing the hard-ass, without Dwyane Wade’s legacy or Chris Bosh’s mix of laconic and “lay the blame on me, I’m used to it”-nature around to take the pressure off. It’s important to remember that this is all mid-autumn twaddle.
What is also important to jot down is the instruction that each of James’ helpers will be on notice, even when he misses 39 percent of his free throws to start a season. LeBron James hasn’t won a title in 53 months, and luckily for Cleveland fans he seems quite aware of this fact. This goofy experiment rolls on, just with a few more furrowed brows.
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