No One Man Can Save Cleveland, Ohio. Not Even LeBron James.
Journalists and marketers tried to make LeBron James into a mythic figure. He’s human, turns out, and now—with his team below .500—he’s unjustly paying for it.
The truth is, the fact that the Cavs kind of suck right now isn’t really LeBron James’ fault. No one man, not even an all-time great, can carry an entire franchise on his admittedly massive, broad shoulders, no matter how many grandiose Wieden+Kennedy ad campaigns suggest exactly that: that James is not just a basketball savior, but some kind-of-creepy Manson/David Koresh-style cult leader.
Well, that’s not entirely true. A younger, more nigh-invulnerable iteration of James might be able to drag a flawed, mismatched roster and a clueless figurehead of a coach to contention, as was the case in his first go-round in Ohio.
As his Cleveland Cavaliers were in the midst of dropping their sixth straight game and seventh in the last eight, this time at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, LeBron James shoved his coach.
That shove—let’s call it “The Shove,” just to give it the proper place in the James-ian pantheon—was more than enough kinetic energy to once again spur waves of speculation and fretting about the state of the Cavs—and James’ ongoing, near-Biblical quest to save an entire rust belt city.
Does said bit of horseplay mean LeBron does not fancy David Blatt, the heralded European coach that was hired prior to his arrival? Will Blatt be fired, despite assurances from management to the contrary? Is it time to take a sledgehammer to the barely nascent, foundational Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love?
Here’s where we arrive at the borderline-tragic aspect to all this: The Cavs’ issues as a whole have the makings of pretty humdrum NBA stuff. There’s nothing new about a possibly ill-fitting coach and a poorly matched and flawed roster, but LeBron’s LeBron-ness, the way every step of his career is framed as part of a mythic narrative by branding executives, marketers, and journalists—myself included—makes each and every misstep or impediment to greatness a dire calamity that only James’ godlike abilities can overcome. And relying on superhuman abilities to fix any problem is part and parcel of understanding the mess that they’re in.
For the moment, it seems like he’s just not that guy any more, and that’s not really his fault either. He’s certainly been a willing participant in the myth-making process, but every athlete eventually succumbs to the ravages of time. Life in the NBA comes at you fast.
For starters, let’s take a look at the head coach, David Blatt. The Shove may have been much ado about nothing, especially considering the wholly rational explanation James gave after the game. It’s also worth noting that James suffered a similar collision with Erik Spoelstra, which prompted the exact same chatter about a flailing Heat team, and whether a bump might mean Erik Spoelstra would soon be canned. He wasn’t, and they won a championship together a year later.
That doesn’t mean Blatt’s in the clear. A report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst surfaced today that made it seem like the only way James and his teammates would recognize their head coach is if they accidentally, physically bumped into one another.
“[League scouts, executives and rival players] see players appearing to run different plays than the bench calls, see assistant coach Tyronn Lue calling timeouts literally behind Blatt’s back during games, and hear Cavs players openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel. Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months,” Windhorst wrote. “For weeks now, the small talk when league personnel run into each other at college games, airports or pregame meals has frequently started with: ‘What the hell is going on in Cleveland?’”
It’s more or less the same dysfunctional mess of a picture that Windhorst painted two weeks ago: “Whispers about the lack of attention various Cavs players are paying to Blatt during some timeout huddles, as well as their apparent preference to communicate with Cavs assistant and former NBA player Tyronn Lue.”
Yes, there have been flat-out denials from the team’s general manager David Griffith and reasonable-sounding assurances from other Cavs that all is well. But when James responds to questions of a “rift” or a “divide”—let alone the notion that they’re straight up ignoring their coach—with the equivalent of, “Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t hire this yutz,” combined with an Agnew-like tongue-lashing of the media, no amount of dismissive hand-waving by team officials is going to make it go away.
Beyond the murmurs and idle gossip, there are the cold, hard, damning facts staring back at James et. al. in the box scores. Heading into the season, the general consensus was that he, Love and Irving would form an unstoppable offensive powerhouse, and that if they could come up with even an average defensive squad, they’d run opponents out of the building.
That definitely hasn’t been the case. Cleveland is a putrid 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s gotten worse during the eight-game sabbatical that James just completed to rest his ailing back and knees, bumping up to an ugly 109.2. Of course, given that their one reasonable facsimile of a rim protector, Anderson Varejao, is out for the season, and the rest of the roster including Irving and Love, is peppered with older, un-athletic wings and slow-footed three point specialists, it’s hardly a surprise they can’t stop anyone from scoring. To put it in context, the Cavs are only one rung above the moribund Knicks.
Prior to LeBron’s injury, although they hardly resembled a whirring, multi-screen, pass-happy offense—that’s what Blatt was famous for crafting during his storied, title-winning career abroad—the Cavs still ranked a robust third in offensive efficiency. Again, that only serves to further tarnish Blatt’s efforts thus far. The system he installed was downright rudimentary and fairly boring, and their relative success was simply derived from boasting three of the top scorers in the league.
Which brings us to the roster itself, and you can certainly point a crooked finger in James’ direction for its composition. Fair or not, the perception exists that this was part of James’ contract, and between enlisting a bunch of his ex-Heat teammates and openly endorsing the decision to trade for Love, it’s probably safe to assume that he was consulted in some way.
It hasn’t worked, that’s for sure. Hence the draft pick-shedding trades that were executed in the last week, ditching the mercurial Dion Waiters, who proved a terrible fit as a spot up shooter and secondary ballhandler, and adding a dynamic, if wildly inconsistent former Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith. The Cavs also took on a bruising interior presence in Timofey Mozgov and a feisty wing defender, Iman Shumpert.
How Blatt will use all these shiny new toys, or whether their presence will allow him to unleash the full power of his tactical wizardry remains a giant unknown. So will knowing if he’ll even be around after the All-Star Game). Furthermore, there’s bound to be a period of transition for a team that was still unable to cobble together a cohesive whole out of the talent on hand. But any team that’s rolling out an over-the-hill Shawn Marion and Matthew “Who?” Dellavadova for over 20 minutes per game, even after adding the aforementioned trio of ex-Knicks, doesn’t scream “contender.”
The main problem is this: The Cavs probably would be battling for a top spot in the decidedly top-heavy Eastern Conference if LeBron were still LeBron.
Right now, it’s like you’re watching a bad imitation, as if something ineffable has been permanently lost. The explosive first step isn’t there on any kind of regular basis and his game is just plain ground-bound. Whereas in the past he’d thunder through opponents at the top of the key, he’ll try to deftly carve out-space for a layup or instinctively look to kick the ball out to an open shooter on the perimeter.
He’s downright coasted on defense or looked like he was hoarding energy, and while the thunderous tomahawk dunks still show up from time to time, you find yourself holding your breath in anticipation of the bursts of otherworldly dominance, the sense that he was physically so much bigger, faster and stronger than you’d think possible. Godot-like, you wait and you wait… and it really doesn’t ever truly arrive.