Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost in overtime to the Pelicans after LeBron James scored 23 points in the fourth quarter to storm the Cavs back. Anthony Davis owned the OT period and the Cavaliers, 5-5 in their last ten, are now tied with the Bulls atop the East.
Most concerning in that game was James' clear frustration. He had to put the team on his back once again in order to get the game to overtime. Teammates simply didn't step up. They didn't need to in the fourth, as James just decided to take over, but there was an overall passiveness and lack of execution all night that bothered James.
After the game, David Blatt did not mince words about the support that James is getting, or, rather, not getting.
"We need to give him a little more help," Blatt told reporters.
The typical response to this is that the help will come in the form of Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving, who are expected to return sometime in the next month from injury. Irving recently resumed practice with the team for the first time since his knee surgery last June.
James, however, is not willing to concede that will fix everything. From Cleveland.com:
"I hope we don't think that way," James said after the overtime loss to New Orleans on Friday, a game he scored 37 points in which 23 came in the fourth. "It's never that way. When you get your guys back, you prepare just as you prepare before. There's only one guy ever in the world that everything will be all right when he comes back and that's Jesus Christ. Other than that, you can't bank on nobody being OK."
Listen, I'm not getting into what Jesus Christ can or can't do, but James is right about this: Irving and Shumpert returning can't be the escape clause. They won't magically fix what ails this team. James, you can tell, is waiting for his team to take the next step, but he won't, and can't, wait forever. Friday night he was passive for most of the night until he realized if he didn't take over they weren't going to win.
His frustration with the Cavaliers and their overall execution is apparent, as the clip below clearly shows. This one might just be his disappointment with a missed key shot late, or that he thought the Pelicans would call timeout, but watch James' body language on this missed 3-pointer. (P.S. Why Kevin Love passes up the first open look here is beyond me.)
Now for the good news:
•Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert are their starting backcourt and when they return they will provide not only a boost in talent, but there will be renewed energy around the team because the Cavaliers will finally feel like they are "whole." Even if it doesn't solve the problems that James continues to find with the Cavaliers' effort and intensity (which have bothered him for over a year), they'll win more games because they'll simply have more talent.
•There is more than enough time for the Cavaliers to find that extra gear that James is looking for. Many point to the 32-3 run over the last half of last year as proof of what this team can do, but I think James wants a better process to how they play, not better results. They can find the toughness, the intensity, between now and then and prove that they have the gear they need.
•However, the concerns with help for James are real. The offensive system this year looks better, it flows better, there are more opportunities for Kevin Love. They are still at the top of the Eastern Conference. The problem is that the issues with Cleveland aren't things you can really point to. All their advanced metrics are good (3rd in offense, 12th in defense, 7th in net points per 100 possessions).
They don't have areas that stand out as glaring problems. They have shooters like J.R. Smith, James Jones and Mo Williams, rebounders like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, and two stars. The talent is not the issue, the results are not the problem. The sense you get watching them, that they are a team that doesn't take the initiative to put teams away, is very real. The things that James has harped on in the past continue to be a problem and James doesn't seem to know how to get the players to respond.
•Much of how you feel about the Cavs' "struggles" (again, they're .500 in their last ten and tied for first in the East), depends on what bar you're measuring them against. Should they be good enough to make the Finals? Or should they be aspiring to a higher greatness, to reach the level that Golden State and to a lesser degree San Antonio has? The Cavaliers are injured, the return of those players will likely be good enough to make the Finals. But they need a better team performance and mindset if they're going to win the NBA title. James seems to know what it's going to take, and that appears to be a large function of his frustration.
Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert will help the Cavaliers make more shots and force the opponent into missing more. The only thing that can change how the Cavaliers are playing as a team however, well, it may not be divine intervention, but it's going to take something bigger than that.