LeBron James has lost 10 or more times in a single month only twice: his first full month in the league (November 2003) and his most recent. That’s a stunning streak, lasting more than 13 years, but now thoroughly overshadowed by the Cavaliers’ terrible March.
And it isn’t James’ fault at all.
The perennial MVP candidate has earned buzz because his counting stats are even more impressive than usual this season. His 26 points per game are an uptick since he arrived in Cleveland, while his averages of 8.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists will both set new career highs. His true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent would be the third best of his career. (The previous two times, he won MVP.)
Those numbers haven’t fallen off in Cleveland’s March slump. In fact, he’s averaging 27.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 8.3 assists in 14 games. Yet the Cavaliers are still 6-8 with him in the lineup, while losing both games with him out.
His impact on the floor is still being felt, too. Since the All-Star break, James is a plus-4.4 in his time on the court in 597 minutes. Kyrie Irving’s minus-1.2 is troubling, and Kevin Love’s minus-15.1 in the seven games he has played since returning from injury is even more so.
Since the All-Star Break, when James is off the court the Cleveland Cavaliers get outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. That number is inflated by garbage time and the Cavaliers losing by a combined 58 points in the two games he didn’t play, but it’s still horrendous.
James keeps quietly calling out his teammates
James gave us this quote last week:
“First of all, you have to take every shootaround and film session, and every opportunity to be together very seriously. If that’s what we want to do — win a championship — we have to have that mindset every single day, on the floor or of the floor. You have to carry that with you every day. If it’s making sacrifices for yourself, or for the benefit of the team, taking away things that you love to do but feel like you have to be committed more to the team, so be it.”
“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage. You got to play the game, the right way. We've got to battle every night like we ain't won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it's a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It's time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We've got to man up. Everybody.”
But something still feels off this season, despite Cleveland spending virtually the entire year on top of the Eastern Conference. This week, the Cavs finally fell into the No. 2 seed, with the Boston Celtics passing them. Only a half game separates the two teams, and they have one game remaining on the schedule, so this is far from over. But it’s troubling.
LeBron’s teammates always let him down, eventually
At this point, it feels as consistent as the world turning. This isn’t an attempt to absolve James from any of his actual shortcomings, and sure, James had heavy influence over many of these players joining him.
But this isn’t a critique of his general managing skills. The reality is that the history of James’ career is littered with dominating James performances as those around him fall well short of their ability.
For this season as a whole, Cleveland is a minus-8.2 without James on the court. (Combine that with on-court rating, and James’ presence on and off the floor is a 15 point swing for Cleveland.) There are factors that weigh that down, sure. But that mostly shows that the Cavaliers literally can’t compete without having James on the court. Cleveland doesn’t want James to be averaging the second-most minutes in the league at this stage of his career, but head coach Tyronn Lue hasn’t really had a choice.
It happened for years in Cleveland, leading to his departure. It happened in the final year in Miami, when he averaged 28 points in the finals on 57 percent shooting, and San Antonio wiped the Heat off the floor despite James’ best efforts. It unfortunately happened in 2015, when Irving and Love both ended up injured headed into the finals, and it’s happening again this season.
Blame James if you want, but damn. The man’s doing all he can.