Onus Is on LeBron James to Carry Cleveland Cavaliers for Now

LeBron James cannot yet disperse the burden of winning among his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates. That cross is, for now, still his to bear alone.

When he left the Miami Heat and returned to Cleveland, it was—and still remains—a decision impelled by melded emotions and desires and instinctive responsibility.

Loyalty. Obligation. Want. Need. Passion. Nostalgia. James’ return—marked by a stirring and introspective return letter for Sports Illustratedhad it all. Including basketball.

Talk of patience and process has never once cloaked the obvious. James left Miami in search of redemption and change. If he was content shouldering exceptional workloads, things would be different. He might still be on the Heat, beside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Or perhaps Andrew Wiggins would still be in Cleveland, learning the NBA ropes from James himself.

Instead, James is on a Cavaliers team that acquired Kevin Love, extended Kyrie Irving and added a slew of veterans in conjunction with his return. While the roster is shallow, this is a squad conducive to championship contention and, more clearly, alleviating the strain placed upon James’ back through star power alone.

And, in due time, that’s just what they should do. Love (26) and Irving (22) are both young stars with the capacity to cart the exacting millstones that James has traditionally ferried on his own. But as the Cavaliers continue to go through the motions, enduring the aforementioned process, James must exhibit the aforesaid patience by being proactive.

There is nothing else that allows for this team to win and contend while also developing. Riding James is the only way it’s managed to find success thus far.

With the exception of one game, James has led the Cavaliers in scoring through every victory this season. And as for that lone exception, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, it isn’t really even an exception. Both he and Irving led the team in scoring, tallying 32 points apiece.

James is also averaging more than 20 shot attempts in victories, compared to just over 16 in losses. The rest of his splits, meanwhile, speak for themselves—and they’re saying volumes:

It’s easy to cite Love’s declining field-goal percentage (42) and scoring totals (16.5) and Irving’s plummeting assist rate (21.9, down from 31.6 in 2013-14) when talking about the Cavaliers’ onset struggles. It’s too easy, actually. James himself has emphasized the importance of everyone else stepping up as the team searches for synergistic balance.

Following an ugly loss to the Portland Trails Blazers on November 4, the two-time NBA champion lit into his teammates, seemingly calling them out for inexperience and an over-reliance on him, via USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt:

I’m just trying to do other things. I’m trying to instill what it takes to win. My mission is not a one-game thing. We have to do multiple things in order to win. We have to share the ball. We’ve got to play defense. We’ve got to sacrifice in order to ultimately win. Obviously, when you’re going through the process, it’s not the best part of it. But I’m looking at the end of the tunnel.

Indeed, James’ performance against Portland resembled some form of protest. He attempted just four shots in the second half, missing them all, while Love, Irving and Dion Waiters all jacked up at least seven. He kept deferring on offense, forcing the ball into the hands of others. It was, perhaps, the most visibly indifferent offensive performance of his career—an aesthetic derivative of his apparent need to teach lessons and deliver truths.

But James’ aim—which we’re admittedly assuming—was undermining.

That game in particular proved how important it was for the Cavaliers to find collective balance. They wouldn’t win or erase leads consistently by playing as individuals. James, Irving and Love clearly weren’t on the same page (something James himself pointed out afterward as well, per Zillgitt).

At the same time, that game, along with those that followed, inadvertently highlighted James’ need to lead by doing more. Designed passivity, however temporary, wouldn’t generate wins in excess. He needed to take over when the situation called for it.

“We got a four-game losing streak, so I stink,” James would later say, per The Associated Press (via NBC Sports). “I’m not doing my job.”

Recognizing the need for change, James has since led his team to a pair of quality blowout victories over the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. The 113-87 win against Washington was easily the most impressive and encouraging.

Although James didn’t fire away at will (14 shots), he relentlessly attacked the basket, collapsing the Wizards’ highly touted defense and earning frequent trips to the foul line. His hyper-aggression created scoring opportunities for others. Irving and Love combined to attempt 12 totally uncontested shots, and Cleveland’s superstar trio amassed 68 points on 21-of-39 shooting.

None of that is an indictment on James’ effort in losses. Part of the Cavaliers’ struggles have been punctuated by James’ individual struggles.

This is the first time he’s shooting under 50 percent from the floor since 2008-09, and his field-goal percentage in the restricted area (65.3) pales in comparison to last year’s (78.3). The fact that the Cavaliers’ seventh-ranked offense is also scoring more points per 100 possessions with him off the court is unnerving. But it’s also slightly misleading, since they’re averaging just 10.5 minutes of James-less basketball per night.

“It’s hard to explain this drop,” SB Nation’s Mike Prada wrote. “James is still getting to the basket at about the same frequency as before, but he’s no longer powering through defenders. Perhaps the back issues are contributing to his lack of explosion. Perhaps his summer weight loss did more harm than good.”

Any number of things could be at play here, including the manner in which he’s finishing at the basket. He hasn’t been a walking highlight reel and is trying to evade and sidestep defenders rather than go through them.

Still, there’s something to be said about James’ success when he’s being more aggressive. He’s shooting better than 52 percent from the field during games in which he attempts at least 20 shots—he’s connecting on just over 44 percent of his shots on other occasions.

The more aggressive he is, the better he is (and the better the Cavaliers are). It’s that simple—which isn’t to be confused with ideal.

Shouldering this responsibility for a star-stuffed team isn’t the perfect beginning to James’ time in Cleveland. It’s a bit too similar to his first go-round with the Cavaliers and the latter part of his career in Miami, when he spoke candidly about the obstacles Wade’s maintenance program posed. Less than 25 percent of the way through 2014-15, he’s also already complained about his playing time.

And who can blame him? Like, really blame him? James makes a handsome living by playing a game, but he’s also pushing 30 and has 40,000-plus minutes—regular season and playoffs—on his treads. His usage rate in victories (33.9) is the equivalent of the league’s second-highest mark. It’s only natural that he resist such a role after assuming an identical one for so long (with both the Heat and Cavaliers).

He just can’t resist it forever.

Cleveland is his creation. This team wouldn’t be where it is now, employing numerous superstars and title-seeking hangers-on, if not for his return. It’s he who signed with the Cavaliers, it’s he who recruited Love, per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, it’s he who has been through a similar transition before.

To wit: This is all on him. He’s the best player, the “old head,” as he said in his return letter. If the team is winning when he takes charge as the primary playmaker and scorer, then that’s who he must be—every night, every game—until the Cavaliers have figured things out and can afford to embody the success-by-superstar-committee dynamic James clearly envisions.

Taking a backseat has backfired. It’s resulted in losses to the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, along with beatdowns delivered by the Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors. Serving as the Cavaliers’ hawkish lifeline—the way he did between 2003 and 2010—has generated wins.

In the case of Cleveland’s recent two-game winning streak, it’s hauled hope.

“For all the pressure, expectations and scrutiny surrounding the team’s first dozen games, Cleveland has a chance to show its true colors,” Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz wrote on the heels of the team’s win over Washington. “Now with back-to-back blowout wins, the Cavaliers are beginning to display that elusive, team-first identity that, up to this point, they had yet to discover.”

With James’ heightened aggression at the forefront of that discovery—the Cavaliers have 53 assists on 80 made baskets in their last two wins—his domineering mindset must hold strong. As much as he may wish things could be different, they must remain the same.

For now.

Change comes later, after James successfully steers the Cavaliers through an identity crisis he helped create and must now solve.

  

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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Utah Jazz Fan Accuses NBA Of Conspiracy After He Heckles LeBron James (Video)

“Dr. Heckle” might have messed with the wrong superstar.
Richard Anderson, a Salt Lake City plastic surgeon who has been a Utah Jazz season ticketholder for going on three decades, is claiming a conspiracy after he was abruptly told last week to cease his longtime use of props to heckle opposing players. His crime, he suspects: Distracting LeBron James at the free throw line.
Anderson watched Monday’s game against the Chicago Bulls at Energy Solutions Arena with a piece of blue tape over his mouth to protest to gag order he was given by the Jazz, he told ABC-4 News. The fan affectionately known as “Dr. Heckle” for his use of rubber chickens and other joke props claims he was told to cease using the props after he twirled an umbrella while James shot free throws earlier this month.

“I think the commissioner and the NBA central office have taken control of who they want to win and who makes them the most money,” Anderson told ABC-4’s Rick Aaron. “What really upset ‘em was when I was twirlin

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LeBron James: Making his teammates worse?

Think about how many times, over the past decade, an announcer or sports analyst has told you just how much better LeBron James makes his teammates. Now, listen to me, as I tell you that not only is that not true, LeBron James makes his teammates worse individually. Having LeBron on your team may improve your team’s overall record, and as shown by the record of his teams, having him probably will help you sport a solid record. But, on an individual basis, LeBron James does not make anyone better. Stop calling him Magic Johnson. Stop talking about his “court awareness.” Just stop. Face the facts, read the numbers, watch the game: LeBron will not help you expand on your talent, he will waste it.
Somewhere in a Cleveland apartment, Kevin Love shakes his head in agreement. He no longer feels like he is going crazy.
Kevin Love is a great basketball player. He is not a good player. He is, by all means, great. There was a brief period of time, in the beginning of last season, when the Timberwolves were looki

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Has LeBron James Lost a Step in His Return to the Cavs? History Says It’s Likely

LeBron James was going home eventually. Most everyone around the NBA expected him to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point before his career ended; after all, he’d never fully severed ties with the area and being viewed as a traitor where he grew up didn’t seem like something James wanted to face for the rest of his life. However much his skin thickened from the fallout of leaving, being loved by those who came up as he did still clearly matters to LeBron.

The only question was whether or not he’d come back while he was still at the height of his powers, or at least with a ready enough reserve to drive the franchise to a championship. That’s why, when he decided last summer to return, the howl of joy from northern Ohio was so unbridled. LeBron James wasn’t coming home as a battle-scarred veteran of skirmishes waged elsewhere—he was coming home as a warrior in his prime, ready to singlehandedly, if need be, deliver the chalice for which Clevelanders have thirsted for so long.

Or did he?

By the calendar, James, at 30, should have at least three solid seasons left to ply his do-everything talents. Michael Jordan, the measuring stick for every modern-day championship-contending superstar, played three more full seasons and won three more rings after the age of 30. Why couldn’t James duplicate that feat or even go beyond it? His listed height and weight (6’8″, 250 pounds) suggests he’s merely added 10 pounds since his rookie year and one before-and-after comparison will tell you how far from reality that is; but by any measure he has several inches and pounds on Jordan (last listed as 6’6″ and 216) and big men are generally able to squeeze out a few more quality years.

NBA teams, though, know better than to base where a player is in his career on his age; seasons and minutes played are a far better barometer. Looking at that metric, James didn’t return to Cleveland at the point Jordan began his pursuit of a second three-peathe returns with nearly the same mileage Jordan had on him when he retired from the Bulls for good at age 34.

Two teams at the forefront of the analytics movement told B/R they have tried to determine the tipping point at which career minutes played take something irretrievable from an NBA player. Both teams said they’ve yet to find it because there are too many variablesbody composition, style of play, role, concentration of minutes and ratio of regular-season to postseason minutes being only a few. That leaves us merely with anecdotal evidence, not only in terms of when a player realizes the NBA grind has diminished his physical ability for good, but also of the impact of multiple deep playoff runs. Every player will tell you the stress and heightened level of play in the postseason extracts something even greater than regular-season games and that the shortened offseason doubles down on the damage because their bodies have less time to recover.

“It takes a lot out of you that you can’t get back,” says Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who went to two consecutive NBA Finals (2002, ’03) with the New Jersey Nets. “Just the mental grind takes time to recover from. And then if you’re handling the ball 50 percent of the time? Look at every guy who has had to do that and gone to multiple finals in a rowthey’ve all broken down in some way. LeBron is the only one I can think of who hasn’t.”

Kidd turned 29 a few months before the 2003 Finals. Minutes played, regular season and playoffs combined at that point: 29,085.

A year later, he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee. One of the most explosive and athletic point guards ever had to transform himself from a one-man fast break into a walk-it-up technician and three-point specialist. He did all that after returning to his original team, the Dallas Mavericks, and eventually earned himself another trip to the Finals and the ring he’d missed out on with the Nets. But where he was the driving force – literally and figuratively – nine years earlier, he was now merely a cog. An invaluable, important cog, but a cog nonetheless.

Mark Jackson is 33rd on the all-time minutes played list with 39,121 plus another 3,776 from the postseason, despite only going to one NBA Finals. He doubts he’d logged any of them if he hadn’t learned early on to do what Kidd did in his return to Dallas.

“I was never a phenomenal athlete,” he said. “It didn’t slow down for me because it was already slow. If I’d had speed I’m not sure I would’ve made [it in] the league because it forced me to understand angles and timing right from the start.”

Even Jackson, though, recognized a change around the 20,000-minute mark. “I played against Allen Iverson his rookie year,” he said. “He shot the gap and steals the ball. There was a time when I could’ve fouled him or at least made him change direction. But I couldn’t even catch him. I realized then the clock was ticking.”

Kidd retired third on the all-time list of regular-season minutes played with 50,111. Microfracture surgery allowed him to extend his career and for a time he still felt he could hold his own athletically, but he believes the 40,000-minute mark was another turning point. He had to rely on his vision, strength and hands to compensate for what his legs no longer could do.

He’s noticed Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, among others, hit the same physical plateau around the same time.

James not only has Kidd beat 4-2 in consecutive Finals reached, and Finals’ appearances overall, 5-3, but the number of postseason minutes logged each time is not close. Kidd crossed the 850-minute playoff threshold once, logging 803, 852 and 744 minutes in his three longest playoff runs. James crossed the 950-minute threshold twice, logging 893, 922, 983, 960 and 763 minutes in his longest runs.

Jordan? He played more than 900 minutes in one postseason just once, in 1992.

His overall minutes in his two three-peats were fairly comparable (2,409 in the second vs. 2,392 in the first) but keep in mind that he played a different role capturing the second trifecta. He still closed games, but facilitating the offense and taking on the toughest defensive assignments fell far more often to his younger sidekick, Scottie Pippen.

Jordan bowed out after 35,887 regular-season minutes and 7,474 posteason minutes played. Three years later, he’d return one last time and add a little over 5,000 minutes to his regular-season total with the Wizards.

James, entering this season, already was closing in on Jordan’s Chicago totals with 33,276 regular-season and 6,717 postseason minutes. Cramps? Yeah, the man has earned the right to cramp up.

It’s actually remarkable that back spasms and leg cramps are the extent of James’ physical issues, considering how much he already has played. Sure, the variables also include a different level of physicality in today’s game vs. Jordan and Jackson and Kidd’s (early) eras. James hasn’t had to endure anywhere near the same body-to-body punishment that any of them did and it’s hard to know exactly how that fits into the equation.

The point? If James looks tired, he has a right to be. If he has lost a step, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. And if he isn’t up to the task of doing all that he did in Miami for the last four years, there’s a very good reason. This might not just be about “the process,” as James likes to say, of learning how to win championships.

This might just be about the price.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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John Wall, One of LeBron James’ Pupils, Now Turning into a Leader Himself

It is common for top overall picks to endure some losing at the inception of their NBA careers, as an extension of the circumstances that led to their selection. LeBron James lost 54 of his first 100 games in the NBA, and while that seem remarkable in retrospect, it was nothing compared with the cruel awakening that awaited John Wall—who had won 34 of his 37 games at the University of Kentucky—after the Washington Wizards, winners of just 26 of their previous 82 contests, took him in 2010.

Complemented—or more accurately, compromised—by a cast of green bigs (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee) and gunning guards (Nick Young, Jordan Crawford), Wall dropped 72 of his first 96 games as a professional, including a 17-point home loss to the Miami Heat on Feb. 10, 2012. 

After that defeat, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade strolled out to him on the court, Wade putting a hand on Wall’s shoulder, and James pulling his shirt up to his nose so the television cameras couldn’t capture the advice he was offering. But, the way the trio told it, that counsel was consistent with what James had been sharing with the point guard pretty much from the time he entered the league:

Don’t let the losing get to you. 

Don’t lose focus.  

Mostly, don’t lose hope. 

And while the tables haven’t entirely turned—since James has since captured two championships while Wall has won only one playoff series—it’s hard to ignore the recent shift in their relative positions as they face each other again Wednesday night. It’s not just that the Wizards beat the Cavaliers last Friday in Washington or that, even after a home loss to Atlanta, they lead Cleveland by three games early in the Eastern Conference chase. It’s that Wall, still the central figure of a tweaked but largely-familiar squad, has already done much of what James is now attempting to do in Cleveland, in terms of helping to cleanse the organization of its selfish habits, its collective fragility, its losing ways. 

So much so that, after scoring 28 points with six rebounds, seven assists and four steals in Friday’s 91-78 win against the cratering Cavaliers, Wall was asked how long it would take Cleveland to click.

“I have no idea,” Wall said. “LeBron’s a great leader. He’s proven that he can do it when he was in Miami. Their coach is a new coach, but they have a new coaching staff, and they have great guys on that coaching staff. It’s just about them getting it together. Like LeBron said, it’s tough for him to be patient with it. That’s something he has preached to me since his rookie year. When you’ve won two championships, you really want to win right away.” 

Wall is winning now, at a higher rate than he ever has, even as his major statistics so far are nearly identical to what he’s produced the past two seasons. How close? Entering Tuesday, he averaging 19.4 points (compared with 19.3 in 2013-14) and 9.1 assists per game (compared with 8.8 in 2013-14) while taking the same number of shots (16.3) as in 2013-14, and shooting the exact same 45.8 percent from two-point range. So the evolution has been more subtle, and only noticed by those who matter most: his coaches and teammates. 

“Taking responsibility, taking control on the floor, from an offensive standpoint, getting guys where they need to be,” coach Randy Wittman said. “Defensively, being able to pressure, he’s the head of our snake. It starts with him and it feeds down into the other four guys. Those kind of things, he’s steadily, each year, improved. He’s got a great understanding of what I want, which makes it nice. I don’t have to be up there and orchestrate everything. And I don’t ever want to coach that way. Sometimes you have to. (But) he has a great understanding of where we need to attack at times, and gets up into that.” 

Marcin Gortat joined the Wizards in a trade late last October, after spending his first six seasons playing with point guards such as Jameer Nelson and, more notably, Steve Nash. 

“What I see as the difference from last year to this year?” Gortat said, repeating the question. “Last year, (Wall) had those days where he would let it slip. Maybe he’d be a few minutes late to practice, or wouldn’t be there from the first minute, or maybe he wouldn’t be tying his shoes until he got out there on the court. As the leader, you always have to be the first guy to set an example. Last year, he didn’t really lift a lot. This year, he is in there lifting with us every day. This is really huge. And on the court, he is leading much better. His decision-making is much better. Everything he does is much better. Overall, he’s on a good path, to become a good leader.” 

But Gortat believes Wall can become a better one still. On the court, Gortat wants Wall to continue to progress as a passer; admittedly, the Polish product got a little spoiled with Nash, since “I don’t think there was any pass he couldn’t make; his left hand was a copy of his (right) hand.” But Gortat also wants Wall to trust him more, to throw more passes in traffic; and to use him more, by allowing Gortat to screen for the point guard in the middle of the court, before screening again and maybe even again, until Wall can find a seam to dart through to the hoop. 

“We don’t have to rush,” Gortat said. 

Some things can’t be rushed, especially when you come into a losing situation at age 20. 

Wall admitted, in a conversation with Bleacher Report late Friday night, that he wasn’t comfortable early in his career with all the requirements of leadership.

The most unnerving aspect? 

“Just learning how to talk to people,” Wall said. “You know what I mean? It’s very tough. Because coming in, I was a No. 1 pick, everybody said I was this-and-that, so I just came in quiet, led by example. But when I got Trevor Ariza and those guys on my team, they told me, you’re our franchise guy, and you’ve got to be more vocal, we want to hear you talk, tell everybody what your role was. Since that day, my life has changed. So I give a lot of credit to Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington.”

Ariza was with the Wizards in 2012-13, when they started 0-12 and finished 29-53. Harrington joined during the 2013 offseason, before the Wizards started 2-7. Then they had a players’ meeting that Wall credits for his change in perspective, his greater understanding of how he needed to act, and play. 

“It wasn’t about me scoring 40 points or 30 points, but just leading, knowing how to talk to guys,” Wall said. “It’s something I work at. A lot of guys see me from the outside-in. I just wanted to change people’s perceptions of John Wall.”

He largely has but, here, again, Gortat calls for even more.

“Just the relationships off the court, how to develop with people, how to respect people,” Gortat said. “I think he knows better how to talk to people. He’s got to continue to grow. He’s got to become more open, to older players, to advisors, and he’s doing a tremendous job with that. He definitely needs to get better as a motivator, the stuff he’s saying, the speeches, but he has been in the league four, five years. That has to come with age.” 

No longer is Wall the youngest Wizard, not with Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., around, but he’s not the oldest either, even with Ariza now in Houston and Harrington—a free agent—reportedly an option to join the Rockets too. That’s Paul Pierce, born nearly 13 years prior, with a dozen more years of NBA experience. 

“I mean, everybody is growing from Paul,” Gortat said. “He is a living and playing legend. Being around him automatically gives you a lot of confidence, and knowledge and experience. It’s great. You are becoming a teammate with someone who has won the championship, who has played 17 years. You just got to eat all this experience with a big spoon. And he’s a great dude off the court too.” 

But Pierce has made it clear that Wall is the dude in charge on it, warranting that privilege, bearing that burden. 

“He’s our leader, man,” Pierce said. “He’s asked to carry a big load for this ballclub. He’s an All-Star, he’s going to do the scoring, he’s going to do the assists, he’s going to be a defender. That’s why he gets paid the way he gets paid, that’s why you see a lot of his jerseys in the stands. He’s going to be asked to deliver.”

Wall said that Pierce has reiterated that the time of arrival, and that the respect and communication has run both ways. 

“I’m  trying to be what he is. Hall of Fame, championship,” Wall said. “He was telling me, like (against the Cavaliers on Friday), he said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. You started being aggressive.” He wants me to know that I’m the best player on the court every night. He wants me to be aggressive, in the right way, getting teammates involved, getting to the basket. When you have a guy like that, that wants you to be great, after telling (me) that, when I came in the league, ‘You ain’t getting no calls, you’re a rookie,’ and things like that, it’s pretty exciting. It’s huge. Big time.” 

Naturally, a huge part of a leader’s responsibility is presentation to the public, and it was clear Friday, at shootaround and after the game, that Wall has improved in that area as well.

He spoke in platitudes for sure, but they sounded convincing, and he was always under control.

He credited teammates for the recent collective success. He admitted his disappointment with his shooting performance in the previous game, a loss to Dallas, and his determination to get extra shots up at practice. He refrained from gloating that Cleveland’s Dion Waiters, after declaring that the Cavaliers had the NBA’s best backcourt, was now coming off the bench: “Nah. Still got to go out there and play. He could come off the bench and get 20 points, you never know.” He related the reality that “just this whole year, anybody we play, we’re not sneaking up on anybody like we were last year. Everybody knows we’re a pretty good team, what we’re capable of. But it all starts when we step between those lines. It doesn’t matter what anybody says in the media, about being the best backcourt, or having the best player in the world. It’s when you step between those lines, who is having the best game that night, and whatever team wins.” 

He echoed his coach’s sentiments, by reminding reporters, and in turn teammates, of the need for greater team maturity than the Wizards had shown against the Mavericks, since “good teams don’t hold back when you got emotions going, and you’re mad that you’re not playing well and you got a turnover or something. They’re gonna keep it moving. And they showed that to us on Wednesday when they went up 10 in like a minute span. They’re not waiting for nobody. And that’s something you got to do if you want to be a winning-caliber team.”

He emphasized the irrelevance of individual statistics.

“If I would have lost this game and had those same amount of points, I wouldn’t be talked about,” he said. “As long as my team is winning games, that’s all I can do. Is try to go out there and lead my team the right way, passing, assists, scoring if my needs me to.” 

And he challenged the notion of complacency, noting that the Wizards needed to follow up their wins with strong performances in the next outing, and needed to remember the rough times fairly recently behind them.

“Well, (we) could never get complacent, because (we) know where we were a couple of years ago, well, I do, definitely being here,” Wall said. “So we know what we’re capable of, and what we can do. Just got to go out there and prove it on the court. Any given night, anybody can be beat.” 

 

He wasn’t beaten on Friday by the Cavaliers, not when he kept confidently stepping into jumpers every time the defense sagged off him—a strategy many of the scouting reports on him still suggest. And he’s only been beaten three times all season, four fewer than Cleveland so far. Yet Wall certainly hasn’t gloated about that either. He and the Cavaliers’ superstar have been more than friends since meeting at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron when Wall was a teenager. 

“He’s like a bigger brother to me,” Wall said. 

And a big influence.

“Just seeing how he was vocal,” Wall said. “He has always been a guy who has led by example, but he was a very mature guy who was very vocal at a young age. Just seeing the tough times, where I was losing, and he would tell me, keep your head up, keep working, don’t get caught up into the losing and the bad habits that are going around. Always working, wanting to improve.”

That’s what he’s sharing with his squad now. Wall noted that James didn’t go through quite the same adversity in his first few seasons, even though Cleveland didn’t make the playoffs in the first two, and James didn’t win his first title until his ninth. James hasn’t had the same sort of injuries. He didn’t suffer through as many seemingly hopeless stretches. Even now can’t compare. The Cavaliers are enduring some growing pains, for sure. But James isn’t playing with McGee and Blatche. he’s playing with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Everyone assumes they’ll get it right.

Wall does too. 

“I think the key is, well, they’re starting off in the right place,” Wall said. “You got to have a great veteran guy that comes in and knows what it takes to win.”

The 24-year-old mentioned Ariza and Harrington again, specifically how Ariza had been around a championship environment with the Los Angeles Lakers, and taught the Wizards how they needed to work, how they had to change their habits, how they might need to sacrifice some of their games, to make the team better. “And that’s something we had to deal with at the beginning of last year, going 2-7, and changing around after a team meeting,” Wall said. “It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight.” 

Not even if the Cavaliers win Wednesday night, against Wall’s Wizards.

“Patience is the biggest key,” Wall said, sounding sage, a student starting to become a teacher. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Maximize Kevin Love as LeBron James’ Sidekick

The Kevin Love-LeBron James experiment is still in its infancy, so naturally there appears to be a lot of room for growth.

Love continues to adjust to his new role as sidekick alongside James, just a year after averaging 26.1 points per game as the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ main option.

In his first 13 games this season, Love’s scoring and usage have plummeted.

The All-Star forward is averaging 16.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 40.4 percent shooting from the field. Love’s playing almost the same amount (35.8 minutes to 36.3 minutes) as he did with Minnesota, but with a lot less in the box score to show for it.

Love talked about the struggle to find his role alongside James recently, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

It’s come to a point where I’m just trying to find myself in this offense. It’s almost related to when you come into the league; usually the guys that dominate the ball so much tend to learn a lot quicker than a guy like myself, a big man. So I’m just trying to find different spots in the offense.

Not all of this is Love’s fault, however. It should be a collective effort between he, James and head coach David Blatt to get Love more involved and maximize his offensive ability alongside his four-time MVP teammate.

 

Step 1: Effort, Activity

If Love wants some tips on playing alongside James, he need only look to a certain floppy-haired teammate.

James and Anderson Varejao are now in their seventh season together as teammates. Varejao is the only current Cavalier to have played with James during his first stint in Cleveland.

On the surface, Varejao doesn’t possess nearly the same amount of offensive talent as Love. He’s not a skilled outside shooter, doesn’t have Love’s post game and has never averaged more than 8.6 points over a full season.

That being said, check out Love and Varejao’s stats per 36 minutes when on the court with James, via NBA.com/stats:

With James on Court PTS REB AST FGM FGA FG%
Kevin Love 15.0 10.0 2.6 4.6 12.3 37.7
Anderson Varejao 15.5 9.5 2.3 6.7 10.9 60.9

Given the same amount of time playing next to James, Varejao is actually the greater and more efficient scorer.

How can this be? Especially given Varejao’s offensive limitations, Love should be well above him when it comes to scoring numbers.

The answer lies in the activity level of both big men.

While Love has preferred to find an area and spot up (often while tightly guarded), Varejao always has his eyes on James. He knows a double-team is likely coming and has mastered the timing of pick-and-rolls.

Here’s a recent play against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 22 that illustrates this point.

James starts with the ball at the top of the arc with Love and Shawn Marion already headed toward the corners. Instead of just dashing into the paint, Varejao remains patient and waits to see what James will do.

After James gets by his initial defender, the real fun begins. Love has scrunched himself into the corner and isn’t in a position to receive the pass. Varejao, on the other hand, realizes the mismatch between James and Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. Varejao begins his cut to the basket, knowing Valanciunas will likely choose to cover James over himself.

Valanciunas is stuck in no man’s land now thanks to James. He can’t give the 6’8″, 250-pound forward a free trip to the basket and is forced to abandon Varejao. The result? James snaps a nifty behind-the-back pass to Varejao who cashes it in for an easy layup. Love is left in the corner watching the play unfold.

Given Love’s spot-up shooting ability, it’s only natural to space him out from time to time, something the Cavaliers can’t do with Varejao.

That being said, there’s no reason why Love couldn’t take Varejao’s place in a play like the one above. If anything, he’s even more dangerous since Love could cut to the basket or knock down a jumper should James’ initial defender recover in time.

For Love, it’s a matter of activity.

Varejao does an excellent job of staying active, moving without the ball and keeping an eye on James at all times. Love had no one like that to play off of with the Timberwolves, so changing this aspect of his game make take some getting used to.

According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, Varejao is averaging 3.5 miles ran per 48 minutes of playing time. This distance ranks him first on the Cavaliers and 62nd overall in the league.

Love finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Out of 420 qualified players, Love ranks 359th with 3.1 miles ran per 48 minutes. Even teammate Brendan Haywood, who missed all of last season with a broken foot and will turn 35 this month, covers more distance than Love (3.2 miles).

James is a remarkable asset to play next to, and remains one of the best passers in the game today.

Love needs to take advantage of this and be more active while he’s on the court.

 

Step 2: Picking Spots

Love’s offense isn’t necessarily about just getting him the ball, but where he’s receiving it that matters.

Love’s primary areas of strength lie in the paint and any three-pointer not in a corner. Blatt needs to adjust his playbook to put Love in these positions as often as possible, notes Terry Pluto of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The key for Coach David Blatt will be to not just find more shots for Love — but find shots that make more sense for Love. The 6-foot-10 forward has talked about wanting the ball inside. James has said if that’s the case, he needs to set up near the basket more often and “demand” the ball.

Through 13 games, here’s where Love’s shots are coming from compared to his 26.1 point-per-game 2013-14 season.

Cleveland needs to keep Love away from the the corner three, an area he tried to avoid last year. This season, Love is shooting just 33 percent from the corners. When he’s above the break, his success rate jumps to 36.8 percent.

James and Love could play high pick-and-rolls all day, with the latter popping a three from one of his favorite spots.

When Love gets position in the paint, James needs to recognize this and get him the ball as quickly as possible. Last year, Love averaged 5.5 shot attempts per game from within five feet of the hoop, via NBA.com/Stats. This season, he’s attempting just 3.5 a contest.

James has to help Love by getting him going early inside, which will in turn help collapse the defense and open up the perimeter for Cleveland’s outside shooters.

Now in his seventh year, Love has established his favorite spots on the court.

It’s up to James to keep finding him there.

 

Step 3: Patience is Key, Right Chris Bosh?

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, there exists a perfect blueprint to follow in order to create synergy between James and a talented offensive big.

James and Bosh came together with the Miami Heat in 2010, both never having played with a teammate quite like the other. Both had to make adjustments, sacrifices and work at complementing each other. Nothing came easy, especially in the beginning.

Two championships in four years later, however, and no one could say it wasn’t worth it.

For those who are worried about Love’s low statistical numbers, consider Bosh’s first 10 games alongside James:

First 10 games with James PTS REB AST FG% 3P%
Chris Bosh, 2010-11 14.5 6.0 2.0 48.2 33.3
Kevin Love, 2014-15 16.7 10.4 2.6 38.9 35.7

Outside of field-goal percentage, Love has actually performed better than Bosh as James’ teammate in their first 10 contests together.

For Bosh, that was enough time to adjust.

Over his next 20 games, Bosh averaged 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds on 51.1 percent shooting from the floor.

Bosh told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick back in October:

It’s going to be very difficult for him. Even if I was in his corner and I was able to tell him what to expect and what to do, it still doesn’t make any difference. You still have to go through things, you still have to figure out things on your own. It’s extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. He’s going to have to deal with that.

It appears Love is very much in the process of figuring things out alongside James. His head is likely filled with, but not limited to, thoughts such as: Should I be spotting up on the wing? Does LeBron need a screen? Should I be getting ready for a rebound or waiting on a last-second pass inside? Where does James want me now?

Bosh likely had the same thought process, but eventually began to figure James out. After all, James is like a gigantic wave and his teammates are the surfers. Being just a guy with a board, you don’t try to change the wave and its power, just pick the right spot and ride it as long as you can.

For that, it’s going to take time.

The good news is that Love appears to be buying in and remaining patient, as he told Skolnick:

I think it’s going to have to be an effort throughout the entire team to do what’s best for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And we don’t know what that is really yet. But I’m going to do what’s best for this team to win, because at the end of the day that’s what we want, is to win.

For Love, patience is key and pain is expected.

Hopefully, as it was for Bosh, both will be rewarded.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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WATCH: James Harden had another lapse on defense

Houston Rockets star James Harden is everyone’s favorite punching bag when it comes to mocking poor defensive play. While Harden is hardly as incompetent defensively as the internet makes him seem, he is certainly not a great defender. He had another one of his “moments” on Monday night. At one point during Houston’s 91-86 win…Read More

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LeBron James Facing Biggest Challenge of Career with These Cleveland Cavaliers

He’s been touted and lauded, the hype so hot it would sear a weaker man to ash. He’s been doubted and derided, his name dragged through mud thickened by insolent ink. No matter how many feats he meets, it’ll be the blunders from a decade ago that keep the cameras rolling.

Over an unparalleled 11-year career, LeBron James has faced a battery of tests that would make Hercules head for the hills. And none will prove tougher than leading these Cleveland Cavaliers to the Promised Land.

It’s a twofold question of talent and expectations. Embedding LeBron with the Philadelphia 76ers might make for the biggest basketball challenge.

But to guide Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and the rest of his Cleveland cohorts through such a narrow needle’s eye, to make good on their strengths while seamlessly correcting their weaknesses? That, for LeBron, is the harder hardwood high-wire act.

James has been down this road before, of course. Four years ago, in the midst of a 9-8 start, it was the King being brought to court, forced to answer for the Miami Heat’s lackadaisical play. Two titles and a quartet of Finals appearances later, it’s hard to argue The Decision—clumsy though the prologue was—didn’t hit a happy ending.

So when word came that King James would take his talents to Cuyahoga County, it was reasonable to expect a sequel. There would be bumps and there would be trials but trials that made it all worthwhile.

We’re still waiting on that narrative turn.

By now the arch-villain is plainly known: Through November 23, the Cavs were registering the fifth worst defensive efficiency in the league, per NBA.com (subscription required). The chief culprit being Cleveland’s woeful lack of rim protection, resulting in a 29th-ranked 65.3 percent opponent field-goal percentage on shots within five feet of the rim.

That might seem like an isolated weakness. And one with a clear-cut solution: Adjust the rotations accordingly, or pursue a tried-and-true paint protector using one of Cleveland’s myriad young assets.

But it’s in what Cleveland’s lack of defense means to its offense that has been the far bigger elephant in the room. Specifically: By failing to consistently get stops, the Cavs are prevented from doing what’re custom-built to do; push the tempo and put the defense on pass-rattled roller skates.

Despite that rather significant impediment, Cleveland has still managed to chart the league’s 15th most efficient offense, per NBA.com (104.4)—respectable, albeit a cavernous cry from where the Cavs should, and most likely will, ultimately be.

Writing at Fear the Sword, Jesus Gomez underscored the dire domino effect at play in Cleveland’s defensive woes:

One reason why people were confident the Cavs were going to figure out how to use all the offensive weapons at their disposal was the system coach David Blatt was going to implement. A read-and-react offense with players who can both score and pass at an elite level was supposed to be near the top of the league in offensive efficiency. Love’s versatility was supposed to be at the center of it all. But the Cavaliers’ offense has not looked like that at all so far.

Cleveland averages 39.5 assist opportunities per game, the fifth-worst mark in the league. Instead of letting the ball flow freely, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving dominate it and often take contested pull up shots. They rank No. 11 and No. 14 in touches per game and 12th and eighth on pull up field goal attempts per game, respectively. They are good enough scorers that the Cavs still rank No. 9 in offensive rating despite having a predictable attack based on one-on-one play. But with the team’s defensive limitations — of which Love is certainly partly responsible — ninth is not good enough.

A singular panacea, LeBron is not. But that’s not stopping him from trumpeting the optimist’s ode. James told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:

For me, being the leader of the team, if I start hanging my head low, then I think it’s going to go to everyone else. They look up to me. They look to me to make a difference, and I got to stay positive even throughout the rough times. Like I said before, this is not the darkest point that we’ll see this year. I’ve seen very dark, and this is very light to me.

Sometimes, it’s wise to start with a sliver. Specifically, the outmatched Orlando Magic, whom the Cavs throttled 106-74 Monday night to snap a four-game losing streak. James was predictably phenomenal, finishing with 29 points, four rebounds, 11 assists and three steals in what was perhaps Cleveland’s best two-way performance of the season to date.

It’s a step—albeit a slight one—in the right direction. Still, the hurdles abound, from the Cavs’ lack of overall depth to the sheer inconvenient truth that, for all their tantalizing talent and upside, Love and Irving are nowhere near Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in terms of two-way consistency.

This team’s potential might be greater than that of the Heat. The challenge lies in marking every notch above and beyond that rarefied standard. Like using a socket wrench to fasten a bolt, where every additional, tightening turn takes myriad more effort than the last.

Compelling these Cavs to championship tightness will take more muscle—mental, physical and otherwise—than LeBron has ever mustered.

But if you’re bound to bet on anyone to find the torque few believe is there, who better than a legend steeped in rendering the impossible possible?

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LeBron James leads Cavaliers over Magic

James scores 29 as Cavaliers rout Magic, snap four-game losing streak

      
 

 

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LeBron James leads Cavaliers over Magic 106-74 (Yahoo Sports)

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against the Orlando Magic at The Quicken Loans Arena on November 24, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — After a blunt assessment of his play at the team’s shoot around, LeBron James responded with a dominant performance.


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