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It’s LeBron James’ birthday! Look who’s 30!
Now look at all of us media buzzards diving in to bloviate as to whether LeBron James is long for Cleveland. Again. Let’s party like it’s 2009.
We spent ages talking up and down the Cleveland Cavaliers’ various woes and prominent potential, even with a lacking roster, on Monday. This team can still win a championship. This team can still vault to the top of both the Eastern Conference and the offensive efficiency rankings – perches the Toronto Raptors both currently occupy. LeBron James can still be the guy that hounds Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant in the final stages of a deciding playoff game, while still dropping 33-9-9 on the other end.
The problem so far is that the Cavs have dropped 12 of 30 to start the season, not terrible, but not ideal. They’ve also fallen into the lower third of the league in terms of defensive rating. As a result, we’re all chirping, and one Cleveland beat writer, Chris Haynes from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, even offered this on Tuesday morning:
James, who turns 30 today, has no intention of compromising his prime years playing for a sputtering organization. He can opt out of his contract at the end of the season and become a free agent.
Given the massive scrutiny he would endure if he departed Cleveland a second time, if his hand is forced, I'm told he won't hesitate to make the appropriate business decision if it means bolting.
(LeBron James, in anticipation of a giant uptick in terms of what a maximum-salaried player can make, intelligently decided to sign a two-year deal with Cleveland last summer with an opt out clause after the initial season. NBA salary rules encourage such a move; rules that are similar to the ones that also encourage Kevin Love not to sign an extension with the Cavs during the season.)
Now, this is anonymously-sourced, we don’t know how many people are doing the telling here, or even if the telling in question was from more than one person. Chris Haynes is on his first year on the Cleveland beat, which is why many in the blogosphere are scoffing at the report, but it is important to note that Haynes did fantastic work in several seasons while covering the Portland Trail Blazers.
The reason for the season, here, is James’ either tepid or spot-on reaction to questions about rookie coach David Blatt’s work so far this season from Monday:
James was asked after practice Monday if he felt Blatt was the right coach for the team, and he said: "Yeah, he's our coach, I mean, what other coach do we have?"
OK, so, there’s that, but there’s also this:
"I'm happy who we have at our helm," James said. "He's our coach. For it to make a feud between me and Blatt or the team and Blatt, it's just to sell. To sell and get people to read it and put something at the bottom of the ticker. That's all it is. It's funny, you could write those same things when we win, too. It's just write it when we lose because it looks better."
"I think my relationship with the coach continues to get better and better every day," James said, one day after the Cavaliers lost by 23 at home to the Pistons, one of the NBA's worst teams this season. "It's just two months of us being together. I don't know him fully, he doesn't know me fully, he doesn't know any of the guys fully, and that's to be expected. It's our first year together. But he has our attention."
Pick out what you want, deduce what you need, but also listen to LeBron James when he tells you that all of this nonsense (including the post you’re reading right now) is little more than fish and chip paper.
David Blatt is, currently, not coaching to his full potential. His various pro and international tournament teams featured fully flowing offenses that were gorgeous to watch, teams built around movement and the pass that led to the pass that led to the pass that led to the score. Blatt has taken a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach thus far with the Cavs, working in very orthodox ways with basic screen and roll offenses designed to make sure James, Kyrie Irving, and to a far lesser extent (in ways that aren’t his fault) Kevin Love get easy and productive initial returns.
What’s probably most telling about Blatt’s initial turn with Cleveland is that I genuinely started to write “penny-wise and pound-foolish approach with the Heat” in the prior paragraph.
James’ Cavs cannot be directly compared with the 2010-11 Miami Heat, as we wrote about yesterday. By this time in that season those Heat were a far better team than this Cleveland outfit, and while they didn’t top the Eastern Conference standings that year, the Heat did rank in the top five offensively and defensively when 82 games were said and done. Still, the parallels between Blatt and Erik Spoelstra are there. Coach Spo had two seasons under his belt prior to LeBron taking his talents to Florida (we’re not writing that again) but his offenses both with James in 2010-11 and without him in the previous two years were pedestrian and easy to guard. He eventually got better.
Blatt has already been better, just not at this level and with these sorts of players. It will take time; and while the Cavs will never be a good team defensively with that roster, they can turn into an incredibly-good offensive unit if both Blatt and his players decide to take the long view of things. That will have to be the focus, because with this personnel the defense is not going to get much better. Defense is the problem, but there is not a knockout solution for this season.
There are no killer coaches out there waiting to take over. Every sideline stalker would absolutely kill for a chance to coach LeBron, Love, and Kyrie Irving, but even the best of candidates isn’t going to solve anything. George Karl is not going to be able to patrol the paint for the Cavaliers. Michael Malone is not going to be able to close out on shooters. Your favorite Highly Regarded Assistant is not going to be able to peel about 10,000 career minutes off of LeBron’s legs in order for him to start playing devastating two-way ball against the Pistons in December.
“What other coach do we have?” may come off as tepid, but it’s also the absolute right thing to say. Nobody else is coming in that would make a major difference, so both the Cavs and Blatt are going to have to figure this out together.
LeBron James will opt out of his contract this summer in order to both make as much money as he can under NBA salary bylaws, and assess his career prospects. That’s his right. Whether or not you believe he’s making any sort of concrete decision 30 games into an 82-game season is entirely up to you.
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