Nobody is writing off the Cleveland Cavaliers, and everyone is reluctant to turn their putrid start into a serious concern, because we’ve seen this movie before, and LeBron James always makes it out alive.
But … the Cavs did think enough of their 3-4 record, complete with a middling offensive rating and one of the league’s worst defensive ratings, that they held a team meeting a fortnight into the season.
“Most everyone spoke,” a source who lumped LeBron James into the “vocal” majority told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “Was very productive.”
LeBron on yesterday's team meeting: "It was needed." #Cavs
— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) November 1, 2017
What came out of that meeting, at least as far as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue and All-Star forward Kevin Love were concerned, was a recognition that they lack conditioning, effort and cohesion. Those aren’t necessarily great things to be missing one-tenth into the season, but they’re at least correctable.
In other words, their issue isn’t a lack of talent, or at least that’s what they’re telling themselves.
“Naturally, the slow start that we’ve had prompted us to just all get on the same page and kind of figure out what we need to do,” said Love, via ESPN. “I feel like we can get in better shape, that’s going to help us on the defensive end. Communication, energy and just getting the new guys to (become) adjusted, well adjusted and on the floor, more time together. So time will tell how it’s going to play out, but we have a lot of really good positive energy from today, so, it was a great practice.”
“Focused more on getting in better shape,” Lue added, via Cleveland.com. “I see after today’s practice, watching us today, damn. It’s a big difference. I’m screaming play with pace, and move the ball, move bodies, we got to get in better shape to do that.”
And that includes LeBron, who suffered an ankle injury on the second day of training camp and played just one of Cleveland’s four preseason games. He’s made conditioning a point of emphasis early on.
LeBron lamented his level of conditioning after missing three weeks so he hit the VersaClimber for a postgame session after playing 41 mins
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) October 18, 2017
That “really set him back as far as being able to fly around and push the pace offensively and defensively fly around,” Lue said of LeBron’s ankle injury, via ESPN. “He’s trying to work himself back in shape, but the games are coming so fast and it’s hard to really do that. The best way to do that is by him playing more minutes and getting in game shape and we just got to go from there.”
Back to Love: “I’m not saying that guys are taking plays off, but just (not) going super hard. We have the luxury of being able to put guys in different spots and a really deep roster where we don’t have to necessarily log 30-plus minutes, even the starters. So just go hard; if you’re tired, ask for a sub.”
Now 32 years old, 15 seasons and 50,000 minutes into his career, LeBron is playing 37 minutes a night, fourth behind only twenty-somethings Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMarcus Cousins, down less than a minute from last year’s league-leading 37.8 minutes per game. James has not missed a game, averaging 24.6 points (on 66.1 percent true shooting), 8.6 assists and 7.4 rebounds. And he’s out of shape, which is frightening news for the rest of the league and/or proof he’s a machine who’s battery recharges as long as he’s got the engine on, like that Hummer H2 he drove as a high schooler.
Love’s point doesn’t really apply to LeBron, because he’s LeBron Freaking James, but it is sound advice for everyone else. Play to your fullest in the time that you’ve got, since Cleveland’s bench is (supposedly) deeper, and they can bring the likes of Dwyane Wade and Tristan Thompson off the pine.
The wrinkle there is that some Cavaliers don’t yet know what playing to their fullest in this system means, because the rotation includes new additions Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and eventually (health willing) Isaiah Thomas. Lue suggested after Sunday’s loss that guys were “scared to be aggressive” around LeBron, but he clarified those comments after Tuesday’s team meeting.
“I just told Jae Crowder and D-Rose and the new guys, just play your game,” said Lue, via Cleveland.com. “Like, be aggressive, be who you are. LeBron and Kevin and those guys are unselfish, so they’re going to be able to adjust to you. We don’t want you to be worrying about if you’re taking too many shots or if you’re being too aggressive, running too many pick and rolls. Just play your game, and if you do it too much we’ll let you know.”
Play harder, play smarter, play freer, play better. These are all straightforward concepts complicated by the fact that Wade is 36 years old, Rose hasn’t played to his fullest in years and Green has played his way out of every team he’s been on. Crowder has thrived in one system, for two-plus years under Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and we don’t really know what he is on a team that features LeBron and Love in the frontcourt. And Thomas isn’t scheduled to return until at least January.
So, as much as we trust a LeBron-led team to figure it out by Christmas or thereafter, there are some variables at play on this run that we haven’t seen since James led the Cavs to the 2007 Finals with Boobie Gibson playing major backcourt minutes. And team meetings may not solve what’s missing.
LeBron has had Kyrie Irving to share the playmaking load the past three seasons, and the four years before that it was Wade, who is no longer the player he once was, so more may be required of LeBron to make an eighth straight run to the title series if Thomas can’t regain All-Star form by April. Better hit that VersaClimber and recharge those batteries, because it’s time to get that machine rolling again.
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