When LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July after four seasons with the Miami Heat, he made sure to address a question that he knew would be on the minds of many fans and experts: Can James deliver an NBA title to Cleveland?
In the ninth paragraph of his statement to Sports Illustrated, James highlighted how he is “not promising a championship,” that the team “is not ready right now,” and that his “patience will be tested” in 2014-2015. He would also reference how he could aid in the development of three prominent young players: Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. There was no mention of Anthony Bennett, the team’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, or the upcoming first overall pick the Cavs were set to select that month.
There may have been good reason for the omission. Forty-three days after signing James, Bennett, Andrew Wiggins (the player Cleveland chose with the top selection) and a future first-round pick were included in a three-way deal that brought Minnesota Timberwolves star forward Kevin Love to Cleveland. With Love on the squad, James would be joined by a veteran frontcourt teammate who is eager to win and can score.
Leaving Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James discovered a younger, new version of the “Big Three” in Cleveland with Irving, 22, and Love, 26. The trio has played in every game this season with each averaging more than 35 minutes a night and combining to average 64.5 points per game, while the rest of the roster has averaged 38.4 points. The Cavs are currently riding a five-game winning streak, suggesting they may have turned a corner in the young season.
But there have already been plenty of bumps in the road, proving James was likely right about the team not being ready. After 17 games of the 82-game regular season, the team has just a 10-7 record. First-year head coach David Blatt at one point saw his squad lose four-straight games after starting the season with a 1-3 record. There had been reports that Irving and James were not on the same page after a road loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 4, though the postgame conversation was described as “healthy.” This follows a 2013 report from ESPN’s Chris Broussard about tension existing between Waiters and Irving, and Waiters and Thompson. In October, Waiters claimed the locker room atmosphere had improved with veterans on the roster.
Overcoming personality differences could be easier than the team’s challenges on defense, with opponents shooting 46.2 percent (No. 21 in the league). By comparison, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who knocked off James’s Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, allow opponents to shoot just 43.2 percent (No. 6).
In Thursday night’s tight 90-87 win over the struggling New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the holes in the Cavs’ defense were quickly exposed. In the first quarter, the Knicks converted six shots within five feet of the basket, mostly due to passive low-post defending or the Cavs neglecting the interior for the Knicks to sneak into the key for uncontested shots.
“We didn’t do a great job defending,” Blatt bluntly told TNT’s David Aldridge after the first quarter.
Opponents have picked up on the Cavs’ difficulties to guard their opponents under the basket as well. Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony, who struggled from the floor on Thursday, was nevertheless aware of how he and his teammates had opportunities to capitalize on Cleveland’s defensive shortcomings.
“I don’t think they made many adjustments,” he said. “They stuck with their schemes. We got whatever we wanted out there. We got in the paint.”
Things turned around in the second half, with Cleveland allowing 20 points in the third quarter, and just 14 in the fourth. James noted how defense remains crucial to the Cavs’ success.
“In order for us to be great, we have to play defense. And we’ve been doing that the last couple of games,” he said.
There is still plenty of work to be done, according to most teammates. Shawn Marion, a tenacious veteran who was added in the offseason, believes defending remains a work in progress.
“We’re still learning each other,” said Marion after the game. “We’re still trying to get better. It’s not there. There is no more reason to harp on it.”
Even the offense has come under scrutiny. Against the Knicks, Irving stole the show by scoring 37 points, seven more points than the combined total of James and Love. He dazzled the Garden by switching hands on streaking layups. There have been rumblings that Irving was not fulfilling his role as a facilitating guard, and if that should be his job in the first place. The Cavs may have the best collection of scorers in the NBA, yet are only 11th in scoring (102.9).
Meanwhile, James, who averages 24.6 points per game, has seen his field-goal percentage plummet from 56.7 percent with the Heat in 2013-2014 to 46.7 percent. James appears to be taking on the role of point forward, leading the team in assists with 7.6, a higher average than in any of his four seasons in Miami. Being more of a passer is not a problem for James, though some may wonder why a former scoring champion is deferring to teammates.
The win over the Knicks was an indication of how James can switch from a scorer to a passer on a whim if it means the team has a better chance to win, especially when he has a scorer like Irving in the lineup. “I took over the point guard duties as far as distributing the ball, and [Irving] took over the scoring. We need it,” James said. “I read the game. I saw Kyrie got it going. You feed the hot hand and you make sure everyone gets involved.”
The recent win streak needs to be taken into perspective, according to ESPN analyst and former head coach George Karl. Speaking after the win over the Knicks, Karl maintained that the Cavs have yet to play their best basketball.
“Cleveland right now still isn’t in their flow. It isn’t an easy game for them to win, even though they have won five in a row. I don’t think they have any big-time wins in those five.”
The Cavs will be challenged tonight when they travel to Toronto to face the Raptors, who lead the Eastern Conference with a 15-4 record. An impressive showing would help quiet critics, at least temporarily, who think the Cavs have too many inexperienced players surrounding James and that there are too many problems for Cleveland to overcome.
Detractors may want to reflect on James’s Twitter posting after the Cavs started the season 1-3: “In the words of the great @AaronRodgers12 "RELAX.” Cleveland would bounce back by winning nine of their next 13 games.
Wins against elite Eastern Conference opponents can help put to rest lingering thoughts that the Cavs have a tougher road to the Finals than expected. And so can a look back at the Heat’s start to 2010-2011, when James and Bosh debuted with the team. The Heat owned a 9-8 record after 17 games but would ultimately reach the NBA Finals.