LeBron James put his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates on notice both during an in-game timeout tirade and in the locker room after a second straight blowout loss, for good reason, but it may also be fair to start wondering who in Cleveland will put LeBron on notice. Or if Cavs coach Tyronn Lue just did.
“If guys have agendas,” Lue told reporters after a 133-99 loss to the Toronto Raptors, “we’ve got to get rid of our agendas and play the right way.”
Lue didn’t reference anybody specifically, but that didn’t stop reporters from asking around. Cavaliers guards Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade didn’t name any names, but they did sort of agree with Lue.
“We’re not playing for each other right now, offensively and defensively,” said Thomas. “Defensively, everybody’s on an island playing defense by themselves. Offensively, it’s a lot of one-on-one, no ball movement.”
“We’ve got to all play for each other a little more,” added Wade. “And we have to get out of our individual whatever we’re going through.”
Kevin Love and LeBron, however, weren’t on the same page as their coach and teammates.
“We’ve got a lot of vets on this team,” said Love. “If there are agendas, I don’t see it. But I’m sure whoever he’s speaking of or speaking to with that, he’ll address it, as we usually do.”
“I don’t [have an agenda],” added James. “At this point, three and a half, four years in this thing, I hope not. I don’t know. I don’t have one. I just want to win. I just like playing ball the right way, getting guys involved and winning the game also. I don’t.”
But … this nugget from Cleveland.com beat reporter Joe Vardon seems noteworthy:
Players have grumbled that James has slowed the ball movement, holding onto the ball until he sees an “assist” pass, rather than moving it quickly.
As does video evidence of LeBron’s defense in Thursday’s loss:
lebron berating his teammates but he just stood there on defense pic.twitter.com/8ig0M7Mcca
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) January 12, 2018
lebron berating his teammates but he just stood there on defense, part 2 pic.twitter.com/RJFGd6spRr
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) January 12, 2018
Over the last 10 games, the Cavs are allowing 116.8 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor and are giving up a less-preposterous-but-still-very-bad 108.1 points per 100 with him on the bench. On the season, Cleveland’s defense is 7.8 points per 100 possessions better without James, and the Cavs haven’t statistically been better defensively without LeBron since he returned. And, yes, all of this may be the result of the massive offensive burden the 33-year-old point forward is carrying.
It seems ridiculous to question the effort of a player who has won three titles and accomplished as much as LeBron has, but when he’s calling out his teammates’ effort, his coach is vaguely referencing hidden “agendas,” and the locker room seems torn on what exactly everybody is talking about, it’s OK to examine how an MVP candidate is contributing to his team’s stumble in the standings.
The Cavs have dropped seven of their last 10 games, including losses to the East rival Raptors and Boston Celtics. During that stretch, LeBron has averaged 25 points (on 51.9 percent shooting), 7.1 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 combined blocks and steals — incredible numbers, even if they’re down from his season averages. His usage rate is up a tick, while his assist percentage (of teammates’ field goals he creates) and ratio (percentage of his possessions ending in assists) are both down.
None of this really suggests the ball is sticking in LeBron’s hands any more than it always has.
We could point to his one assist on Thursday — his only such game since rejoining the Cavs in 2014 and one of just 10 games in his entire career in which he’s finished with one or fewer assists. But that’s one game during a season he’s averaging a career-high 8.8 dimes per contest. It’s an anomaly.
The percentage of possessions that LeBron operates in isolation has risen from 19.1 percent in 2015-16 and 20.3 percent last season to 24.7 percent this year, so he’s working alone on almost a quarter of his plays. That is notable. The number of passes he’s thrown per game has also declined from 59.4 last season to 57.7 this year (to 54.1 over his last 10 games and 49 in the past three). And the percentage of his field goals that are unassisted has risen from 59.7 percent in 2015-16 to 62.2 percent last season and 69.4 percent this year (69.2 percent in his last 10 games and 72 percent in his last three).
These would all lend credence to the idea that James isn’t entrusting his teammates as much, even if many of these statistics are small sample sizes. The tape shows some evidence to back this up as well:
But, again, nothing definitive. Also, remember this is one of the game’s most unselfish superstars, and there might be a reason the ball is sticking a little more often. He had been playing with Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon as his starting point guards, and he’s now trying to familiarize himself with Isaiah Thomas, who is 5-for-26 in his last two games and clearly rusty from rehabbing for seven months.
The ball tends to stick when you have an inordinate amount of pressure to lead a team that’s been to three straight NBA Finals back to the mountaintop, and you’re now trying to do it without Kyrie Irving.
Maybe this is all a result of a revamped roster adjusting to each other. (Vardon also had a note in his piece about Thomas complaining of a lack of practice time and players groaning about Lue’s lineups.) Maybe it’s just the way of life for a Cleveland team that’s been known to flip the switch in the playoffs. Or maybe LeBron is trying to prove a point — sort of like he did when he stood in the corners and let Irving chuck to prove a point about the need to play for each other, only the exact opposite.
Or maybe, just maybe, this is LeBron sending a message to the organization that he needs help. He is, of course, a free agent at the end of the season, and it’s hard to imagine this roster — the way they’re currently playing — having any chance of reaching the Finals, let alone making it out of the East. The Cavaliers have a month until the trade deadline to bolster the case for James to stay in Cleveland.
The uncertainty of James’ return has to leave fellow soon-to-be free agents Thomas, Wade, Rose, Calderon, Channing Frye and Jeff Green wondering about their futures as well. So, the task for Lue now is getting this group to put all those agendas aside for one goal of getting LeBron back to the Finals.
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