When Is It OK to Worry About LeBron and the Cavs?

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It’s too early to worry. Right? For now, and at least for the next month or two, any sign of Cavs struggles will bring on a chorus of “Don’t panic” and “Remember when people doubted the Heat?” and “Give it a few months, then we can talk.” Which is fine. It is definitely too early to panic. Everyone remembers when people doubted the Heat. We can all give it a few months.

But there are two factors to consider.

1. No team in the NBA is more fascinating than the Cavs this year. It’s too much fun to talk about this team, so we can’t just put an embargo on speculating until February. Half the reason we watch sports is to overthink everything and jump to conclusions. If we’re just going to wait for the playoffs to have an opinion about teams, there’s no point in playing the regular season.

2. Did you see this Brian Windhorst story about LeBron?

In recent days there have been growing questions as to whether James might be hurt — he has dealt with some minor back soreness — or in some way suddenly physically diminished because at times he has looked lackluster.

That is not the case at all.

This is a conscious decision on how he plans to operate in a passive-aggressive mission to yank some teammates toward his way of thinking. Let some of them fail at their way so they will be open to new ideas, is what it looks and sounds like.

“Everyone wants to win, I would hope,” James said. “Would you rather play selfish basketball and lose, or play unselfish basketball and sacrifice and win? So you pick it.”

That quote came after a 19-point loss to the Blazers. LeBron scored only two points in the final three quarters — none after halftime. Afterward, LeBron explained, “My mission is not a one-game thing. We have to do multiple things in order to win. We got to share the ball. We got to play defense. We got to sacrifice in order to ultimately win. And obviously when you’re going through the process, it’s not the best part of the process, but I’m looking at the end of the tunnel.”

Wait a second. That’s really the plan? What Deepak Chopra book did LeBron read this summer to come up with this?

In no universe does Passive LeBron help the Cavs more than MVP LeBron. Short term or long term. Kyrie’s not better off handling the offense by himself. Kevin Love and the role players aren’t getting as many easy looks if LeBron’s not attacking. Most importantly, everything David Blatt’s trying to do starts with LeBron as the catalyst.

Either this is a convenient explanation for two disappearing acts in three games or it’s a calculated strategy that makes no sense. Either way, not a great sign.

“It’s going to be a long process,” he said in Portland. “There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years.”

Again, everyone be patient. The standard response. No problem.

“But there’s a lot of bad habits,” he added. “A lot of bad habits have been built up over the last couple of years, and when you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help, and that’s what it’s about.”

But that sure seems like a pretty direct shot at Kyrie! Especially on a night when he over-dribbled, shot 3-of-17, and ended his night by walking out of the locker room rather than fielding questions.

Watching this first week of the most fascinating team in the NBA has made this season in Cleveland look a lot more complicated than it did 10 days ago.

Cleveland’s Big Three has a negative point differential right now. LeBron’s shooting 40 percent in the new offense and hitting less than half his shots at the rim. Then there’s Kyrie. Watching him in Portland last night reminded me how great Dwyane Wade was in the early Heatles years down in Miami. Obviously the Cavs will get better as LeBron improves (they beat the Bulls when he had 36 on Friday night), but at some point they will need Kyrie to come up big just the same.

LeBron and Love should be fine. They were put on earth to throw ridiculous outlet passes to each other and run two-man weaves through the league. They are living out their basketball destiny. But Kyrie is a ball-dominant guard with streaky shooting, and his fit next to LeBron is as awkward as Wade’s was.

Wade rose to the occasion, more than most people remember. In that first playoff run, he was dominant against the Bulls and Celtics and even in the Mavericks series. The next year, he and LeBron killed the Pacers on their own, and then Wade came up huge in a couple of key moments against the Thunder in the Finals. When the games mattered, Wade generally showed up and took Miami to another level. That’s the curve Kyrie will be graded on in Cleveland. It’s asking a lot from a 22-year-old guard who’s never been part of a winning season at the pro level.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Portland Trail BlazersSteve Dykes/Getty Images

There’s also David Blatt. His motion offense was the single biggest reason everyone felt so comfortable getting excited about the Cavs this summer. He’s a brilliant basketball mind, he’s ready for this, and on and on. But so far, LeBron seems to have just as much influence over what’s happening as his coach does. How else do you explain Dion Waiters starting instead of anchoring the second unit? And how else do you explain LeBron’s zero points after halftime last night? Isn’t it Blatt’s job to call a timeout and find ways to get his best player going? His superstars aren’t clicking, and Blatt’splaying them together more than Miami played Wade and Bosh with LeBron, which only raises more questions about lineups and strategy and the long-term plan.

There’s time for this to settle, and talent usually wins out, and we all remember the Heat, etc. But just for the record, all that rationale was also used when Dwight Howard joined the Lakers. Everyone predicted 60 wins and a spot in the Finals, but a slow start eventually turned into the season from hell.

The Cavs aren’t the Lakers, because LeBron’s too good, the East is too bad, and there’s no Steve Nash injury to derail everything from the start. But if the Heat and Lakers are two poles of the super-team destiny, it’s possible the Cavs could fall somewhere in the middle.

People were ecstatic about LeBron’s return to Cleveland. It was one of the craziest sports stories we’ve seen in a long time, and it gave a second chapter to a city’s heartbreak. But the other half of the appeal was this Cavs roster and how much fun it would be to watch this offense. With Blatt’s schemes, Love’s skill set, LeBron and Kyrie, and the role players, they’d do more to make basketball look fun than anyone in the league.

That’s what has me doing a double take so far. Nobody on the Cavs looks like they’re having a good time.

That may seem like a cheap criticism after two losses — losing isn’t fun — but the Cavs were built with a roster full of great offensive players destined to be average at best on defense. It basically demands fun. They have to be the freewheeling juggernaut we imagined to make up for the defense we never bothered to worry about. On a team with three superstars in the middle of their prime, there’s less room for error than you’d think.

The same could be said of LeBron right now. He’s been careful to avoid promising titles, preaching patience at every turn. But there’s still pressure here. He’s not just selling himself as a great basketball player, but as a champion who Knows What It Takes, a leader who will apparently stop shooting to prove a point, a savior of an entire city.

The whole world reacted so violently to that first Heat team and its early struggles that we’ve spent the past few years fighting those impulses. It used to be cool to doubt LeBron, now it’s cool to scold the doubters. Any criticism is treated like a hot take, because LeBron didn’t get a fair shake in the beginning with Miami. Ever since, there’s been this persecution myth that says everyone’s always attacking the best player in the world. If you’re criticizing him, you’re just as shortsighted as everyone was back then.

It’s not to say this new perspective is wrong, or frustrating, or anything else. But it may not be permanent.

“It’s going to be a process. I keep on harping on that word, but it’s the truth,” James said. “I’ve been there before and understand it.”

LeBron keeps harping on it, partly to remind everyone he’s succeeded at this before, partly to remind everyone it takes time, partly to give himself more room for error. Avoid the mistakes he made in Miami, while everyone else tries to avoid the mistakes we made watching him.

We’ll see. The Cavs should destroy the Jazz tonight, but it looks like there will be a lot of nights, like Tuesday, that force everyone to stay patient —about the offense, about the defense, with Blatt, with Kyrie, with LeBron. But the biggest question is a little more abstract, and I’m genuinely curious: How long does the patience last?

This post was updated to correct Kyrie Irving’s age.

Filed Under: NBA

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp