LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has been a flop. . . so far. The Cavaliers, consensus choice by NBA pundits to make it to the NBA Finals, are 5-6. The Miami Heat, the team James abandoned to return home, have a better record.
So does Milwaukee. And Atlanta. And . . . getting the picture?
It’s a portrait hardly anyone expected when James signed as a free agent to join the immensely talented Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love was acquired from Minnesota.
What was not taken into account is this: Irving and Love were good players on bad teams. There is a process to transform into a winner, and neither Love nor Irving—or the remainder of the Cleveland roster—are grasping it well.
And neither is first-year coach David Blatt, who has to adjust to the NBA game and working with a dominant figure like James.
More than that, Friday night was so exasperating that James was uncharacteristically lackluster in his effort in a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards. He did not hustle back on defense more than once, and that kind of display came from the player brought in to teach the players how to win.
James called his lack of effort “never a good example.” His teammates followed his lead, and the Wizards had fun at their expense in a 91-78 victory.
“It’s something we’ve got to work on,” James said of his and his team’s effort and body language. “We understand that. It starts with me, for sure. It’s something I’ll always work on, too,” James said. “It trickles down to everyone else.”
The lack of effort by James was disappointing, but also telling. The game’s top player is frustrated. When he arrived in Miami for his first season, Dwyane Wade had won a championship and knew how to win. He actually showed James what it took, and Chris Bosh had the acumen and common sense to embrace the role as the third component.
The Heat made the NBA Finals James’ first year in Miami and won it the second. By April, the Cavaliers might have reversed themselves and this point will be long-forgotten in an interminable season.
To get there, though, is going to take more work than James thought. Love seems lost, uncertain of where to get his offense—in the post or on the perimeter. Irving is used to dominating the ball and wants to display his enormous gifts.
James is the key. He is impeding progress more than he is facilitating it. He and Irving have to come to an understanding about how the offense is run, who’s running it and how it should be run. James also has to find ways to get Love some love on the offensive end. Right now, he’s flounder.
Above all, the Cavaliers have to make an effort on defense. James cannot jog as players sprint. He has to lead by example, with hustle and heart. If James struggles, surely Cleveland will, too.
The bet is that James will inspire his team and the Cavs will emerge as a threat in the Eastern Conference. But it will take more time and effort than James—or anyone—expects.