This is the 15th season of LeBron’s James career, and he is playing better than he ever has. It’s hard to keep improving at year 15, but Lebron James has found a way. Each year, he adds a new element to his game. The two areas where LeBron has improved this year is from the free throw line and in the post. LeBron is shooting a career-best 84 percent from the free throw line. His post game is also looking refined, and it was on full display when he dropped 57 points in a win over Washington on Friday night.
LeBron had 57 points on 23-for-34 shooting. It was a historically excellent performance, and luckily for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it resulted in a win. Unfortunately for them, this was only one of their four wins this season. Cleveland is 4-6, and the third worst team in the east. LeBron’s incredible performance was needed just for the Cavaliers to win a game. At this point in his career, LeBron doesn’t want to do all the work, especially this early in the regular season. He must be wondering what went wrong and if it can be corrected.
During the offseason, Cleveland acquired several veterans to help them in another championship run. They added Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green, and Derrick Rose, and in a trade, they acquired Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. Thomas is the most prominent star, but he will be out until January with a hip injury. Jae Crowder was supposed to help a defense that finished 22nd last year, but instead, he has been inconsistent. Now, Cleveland’s defense is worst in the league. Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green, and Derrick Rose have all contributed to that as they have noticeably struggled on that end.
It’s not all their fault, some players from last year’s Cleveland team have struggled. JR Smith and Kevin Love have been awful defensively, and it’s clear they are not playing with 100 percent effort. That is the common theme. Last year, Cleveland coasted through the second half of the season playing lazy defense, believing no one could challenge them in the playoffs in the east and they could just turn up the intensity then. That attitude has gotten them into trouble this season. Cleveland assumed they could beat teams on talent alone, even while playing lazy defense. It has come back to bite them. The Cavaliers have already lost to bad teams like the Nets, Knicks, and Hawks.
They have lost to these teams, while Lebron has been averaging 28.8 points, 9.1 assists, 7.2 rebounds on 60 percent shooting from the filed. These are video game numbers, and you think these numbers would be for a player on a good team. It’s clear LeBron is at the height of his powers, but he is in for his toughest task yet. Can he drag this group of older players back to another finals appearance? If he does, it will be LeBron’s eighth straight finals. To get there, LeBron will have to keep averaging these numbers, if not do more, because the issues around him are real and are not going away.
The other problem is the Eastern conference is better than it was last year. It is no longer a joke, and it won’t be a cakewalk for the Cavaliers like it was in previous year’s playoffs. The Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks (now with Eric Bledsoe), Toronto Raptors, and the Boston Celtics (even without Gordon Hayward) all are serious threats. All of them also smell blood. They know Cleveland is weak right now, and now is the time to strike.
To get out of this problem, Cleveland first must solidify its rotation, and that may require making some tough decisions. Head coach Ty Lue must only utilize players who give max effort and compete defensively. That’s a little tougher with both Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson out with injury. The best lineup right now maybe LeBron James, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, and JR Smith. That lineup has holes, but it may be the best Cleveland can do. Love and Smith certainly will have to pick it up for it to work.
Help may be on the way for Cleveland. Thompson and Shumpert returning from injury will help the defense a bit. Plus, getting Isaiah Thomas back in January won’t help the defense, but it will certainly help the offense. Right now Cleveland is an impressive 7th in offensive efficiency, but they will be even more dangerous with Thomas. With a bad defense, Cleveland will have to outscore teams some nights. Cleveland also has Brooklyn’s first-round draft pick to dangle in a trade. They could use it to get a guy like Demarcus Cousins. It will be interesting to see how desperate Cleveland gets to make a win-now trade at the deadline in February. Remember, LeBron is a free agent this summer and could leave Cleveland in the offseason.
LeBron has had to carry mediocre teams before, and he certainly is capable, but this is unchartered territory for him. He certainly didn’t want to carry this much of a load at this point in his career. Cleveland better get their act together and fast. They must realize they are not invincible in the east. If they don’t, they will waste LeBron’s best season of his career. That alone will make him want to leave Cleveland in the offseason.
A lot has gone wrong in Cleveland so far this year, but the good news is they still have time to fix it. They don’t have the personnel to be a great defensive team, but they certainly can be better than last in the league. Expect them to get better, but there will be issues that linger for the whole season. Don’t blame LeBron; he has been better than ever, and if he gets this team to the finals, it may just be his greatest accomplishment yet.
[Featured Image By Al Bello/Getty Images]