All-Star games can be fun. The mix of unselfish superstars, outrageous skill sets, and the exhibition setting can lead to some thrilling play – whether that comes in the form of five fancy passes leading to a highlight finish, or some one-on-one brilliance.
All-Star games can also be truly boring. NBA superstars might be tighter than ever as they text away to each other following games or barnstorm with each other selling sneakers overseas in the summer, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll play well together. Passes will miss their target. The usual alpha-males will actually back down and defer with the ball. Instructions won’t be barked out, because nobody wants to hurt anyone else’s feelings.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have three current All-Stars on their team; they have a former lottery pick as a top reserve forward, a former four-time All-Star as a utility man, a former Rookie of the Year, and a reserve swingman that likes to think of himself as an All-Star. The team has lost two out of its first three games to start the season, with its lone win coming in overtime against a Bulls team that was playing without its starting backcourt down the stretch.
The defense looks bad, the offense looks choppy, and LeBron James looks listless.
And that’s just fine. This is the first week of November.
At their absolute best, when (and not “if”) the Cavaliers finally put it altogether, they are not going to be a perfect team. They will not be rattling the 70-win cage, and the team’s front office will have to deftly manage surrounding the stars with role players then can at least approximate the team’s obvious needs. This will not be a knockout defensive team, and there will always be some level of perimeter uncertainty between LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Toss in the ultra-usage of one Dion Waiters, the type of player James never had to deal with as he ham-and-egged it with Dwyane Wade in Miami, and you’ve got growing pains.
James was noticeably indifferent down the stretch of Tuesday night’s blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Cleveland started out well enough, beginning the contest 10-10 from the field, but it could not create distance and pull away from a Blazers squad that was whipping the ball around the court and scoring with nearly as much ease. Portland’s defense adjusted its screen and roll coverage, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters started fancying themselves better scorers than they really are, and James basically gave up on the game in order to … teach his young teammates a lesson?
That can be the only excuse, right? From LeBron’s postgame remarks to several reporters last night, as relayed by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver:
“There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. A lot of guys who are going to help us win haven’t played a lot of meaningful basketball games in our league. When we get to that point where every possession matters, no possessions off, we have to move the ball, share the ball, be unselfish, we’ll be a better team. A lot of bad habits have been built over the last couple of years. When you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help.”
It’s good that LeBron is here to help, but he absolutely cannot play the role of the martyr for this to succeed. It’s just fine for a coaching Phil Jackson to clip his nails on the bench and refuse to call a timeout when his team is on the losing end of a 14-2 run, but James can (to put it lightly) significantly influence the outcome of a pro basketball game.
With that in place, it’s easy to understand why James would martyr-it up.
Kyrie Irving (who missed 14 of 17 shots) fell back on bad habits on both ends of the ball last night, attempting isolation plays offensively when the movement broke down while getting torched by a resurgent Damian Lillard defensively. Waiters also felt the Lillard burn a few times, and he was an absolute nightmare offensively – acting as a terrible, chucking Dion Waiters-stereotype even on the shots he did make.
Anderson Varejao was lured all around the court by Portland’s offense, so he was little help as a rim protector. Tristan Thompson abandoned the off the ball workmanship that made him such a killer in the Bulls win, and coach David Blatt made some curious substitutions both late and midway through quarters.
It was … it was the work of a team that was just put together a few months ago.
It was the work of a team with a lot of bad habits to fix, it was the work of a team running with a rookie head coach, and it was the work of a team filled with formerly-friendly contemporaries that now have to become trusted teammates.
Of course, cable TV morons won’t recognize this, because they have airtime to fill as they preach to the sort of drooling simpletons that would be home watching basic cable sports chatter in the middle of a weekday. The Cleveland Cavaliers will likely saunter into Utah on Wednesday night, win handily against a rebuilding Jazz squad, move their record back up to .500 and have 78 more games to figure it out.
James’ Heat team, in spite of some fits of brilliance, didn’t figure out its spacing and defensive schemes until the playoffs in his second year with Miami. That’s after 148 regular season games and an extended 2011 playoff run to the Finals. For nearly two whole years, that Heat team mostly succeeded merely by acting as the sum of their parts, and they nearly won a title that way. Once it clicked, two titles resulted.
It may take this Cavs team just as long, but that’s just fine. When it clicks (and it will click), they’ll be just fine.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have real basketball problems, and not cable TV fodder, to deal with. The offensive movement is lacking for long stretches. Their perimeter defense is porous, and the Varejao/Love front court is providing little resistance in the paint. The team is not rebounding as well as it should, LeBron James has not been his usual self around the basket so far this season, David Blatt’s in-game adjustments could use quite a bit of work, and someone needs to tell Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson exactly where they rank in the pecking order.
Then there is the whole problem of never being here before. Not just for Love and Irving, who’ve yet to play a playoff game. Not just for Blatt, well-respected but without any NBA coaching experience. Not just for Waiters and Thompson.
For LeBron James. For all of them. This is something entirely new for each and every member of this potentially-dynastic but imperfect squad.
Tipoff is at 9 p.m. Wednesday night, Cleveland-time.
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