Did you know the Cavaliers are struggling? Boy, that sure came as a surprise to everyone. Even with a blowout win over the Orlando Magic, the Cavaliers are worse than even the most reasonable minds suspected early in the season.
LeBron James has a theory about why and shared it with reporters prior to Cleveland's game on Monday (via ESPN).
"We got a four-game losing streak, so I stink," James said after shootaround Monday in advance of the Cavs' game against the Orlando Magic. "I'm not doing my job. I got to do a better job, and it will help our team."
"Stink" is harsh. James is still averaging 25 a game and is in the top 20 in the NBA in PER. He also busted out of his slump with a big performance in the victory over Orlando.
But it's also clear that he's not playing at his normal standard considering he was a sure-fire MVP shoo-in when the season began. There are all sorts of possible reasons why, chief among them a back injury in preseason that perhaps lingered into November. But it's clear as day once people dig into the numbers and film.
Worse, it often seems like he's not giving his usual effort, particularly defensively, where he started to slip last season. Reading too much into body language or a lack of concentration can be dangerous, but LeBron is also the person who must set the tone, particularly for the Cavaliers' younger, impressionable stars. If he's not doing it, those bad habits they have will bubble back to the surface.
Where has LeBron been off his game?
Finishing at the rim
There are many reasons why James is the best player on the planet, but the biggest is because he's a runaway freight train coming to the basket. LeBron was so big, so strong and so agile that even the biggest centers had no chance trying to impede his progress once he got a head of steam. That's why it was so jarring to see James commit this kind of turnover during the fourth quarter on Friday in a loss to the Wizards.
When was the last time James pump faked on a fast break? And all because he couldn't get through 37-year-old Paul Pierce and was worried about the immortal Kevin Seraphin blocking his shot? That was weird watching on TV and even weirder in person. Yet it's happening because James has suddenly struggled to finish in the area he once dominated.*
*Note: James was at 61.8 percent before his breakout performance against the Magic on Monday.
It goes deeper than this, too. James is shooting less than 50 percent from two-point range, his lowest mark since his rookie season. He's attempting just 6.9 free throws per 36 minutes, his second-lowest mark since the 5.3 he attempted as a rookie. These are all very good numbers for an NBA player, but James isn't just an NBA player. He's a superhuman NBA player performing merely like a gifted one.
It's hard to explain this drop. 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. But plays like this have become far too common.
This example speaks to an ongoing James problem: he's trying to be too cute around the hoop. Rather than power through Jeff Green, he tries to spin the shot off the glass with his wrong hand. It's as if he's finishing through an 8-foot behemoth instead of a player who's about his size. He's forgotten that he doesn't need to resort to the trickery smaller players like Tony Parker and Steve Nash use to score against taller players.
Here's an even more glaring example. James is too big and too strong to use the wrong-footed, one-handed layup that Nash made popular.
Yet there are also other times where he's just not generating the same kind of strength on finishes. James used to power through elite rim protectors like Roy Hibbert easily. Now, he's struggling to push away backups like Seraphin.
One has to assume James will improve over the course of the season. He's 30, not 50. But this is one area where a slight decline in athleticism becomes noticeable. Perhaps that's finally starting to happen.
He's taking tougher shots
That lack of explosion at the rim is also affecting the kinds of shots he takes. More of James' shots are contested. More of James' shots are after he's dribbled several times instead of on catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive opportunities. More of James' shots come after he's held the ball for several seconds. Scoring production is going to go down given those circumstances.
The difference is slight, but it's there. Last season, 34 percent of James' shots came without a dribble beforehand. That number is down to 26 percent this year. Furthermore, 51 percent of James' shots came with a man within four feet of him; that number is up to 59 percent this year. And James is also struggling to score on contested looks, hitting 40 percent of his shots with a defender within 0-2 feet of him after nailing a whopping 65.2 percent last year.
There are times when James is settling for jumpers instead of attacking. Kyle Lowry is a tough defender, but he shouldn't be such a deterrent that James must settle for this fadeaway immediately instead of working for a better opportunity.
But there are also times when James can't generate the kind of separation he could in the past. Every half-inch matters, even for someone as skilled as LeBron. He's just short on this step-back miss over Wilson Chandler, likely because he had to lean back a quarter of an inch farther than he did in the past. That adds up.
A lack of familiarity with teammates explains some of James' shooting issues. James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had already figured out where each other liked the ball. James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, meanwhile, have not. Moving from Erik Spoelstra's familiar pace-and-space system into the early stages of whatever David Blatt is trying to build has also caused James to hesitate and for the Cavaliers to stand around. Wizards center Marcin Gortat acknowledged publicly what many have noted privately: the Cavaliers have trust issues, which is affecting James' play.
But the early steep decline in James' contested shot percentage is also a sign of a slight athletic drop. James' percentages won't stay this low all season, but it's hard to believe they'll approach last year's levels either.
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Yet every offensive issue pales in comparison to James' defensive struggles. Gone are the days when James was simultaneously the best offensive and defensive player on the planet. In their place is a lack of foot speed, constant switching to avoid difficult assignments, and Harden-esque off-ball breakdowns that lead to easy buckets. This problem started during his last year in Miami and has become even worse this year.
It's become a common tactic for teams to run specific weakside action -- or at least instruct their players to cut in a certain way -- to take advantage of James' ball-watching tendencies. That's how Pierce got wide open on this corner three. The Wizards ran a version of this Mavericks "speed pick and roll" play with Pierce as the initial decoy pick and roll ball-handler, then had Nene clear out the left side so Pierce could drift into the corner. James was so focused on the pick and roll that he let a future Hall of Famer slip behind him unnoticed.
Expect more teams to exploit James' lack of concentration. It's been on display multiple times, from obvious mistakes like this Lou Williams layup ...
... to less obvious transition laziness like this first-quarter sequence against Boston (off a made bucket no less) ...
... to whatever the heck James is doing throughout this play.
What's scarier, though, is that James is losing lateral quickness even when he does try. He's just too slow and gets screened too easily to prevent Kawhi Leonard from getting a dunk on this cut.
James has been just as poor with his closeouts and even defending scorers in isolation situations, and that's with the Cavaliers increasingly shifting higher-demand assignments onto Shawn Marion. The lateral quickness that made him such a defensive terror isn't there anymore. Combine that with the lack of effort you see on display with these clips, and James can be just as much of a sieve as Irving or Love. That's a big problem considering James needs to be at least a good stopper for Cleveland to have even a competent defense.
It increasingly appears that last year's poor defensive showing wasn't just a one-year blip due to James' higher-than-expected workload with Dwyane Wade in and out of the lineup. The days of James being a high-level defender may just be over.
If there's a silver lining for Cleveland, it's this: James surely can't be this mortal. A small decline was to be expected given the number of minutes James has played throughout his career, but not like this. There's every reason to believe that some of James' numbers and weaknesses will rebound to closer-to-normal levels as the season progresses. James has spoken often about pacing himself, after all.
Still, as the world searches for reasons for Cleveland's slow start, it's time James' drop from demigod to talented mortal comes up as much as Irving, Love, Dion Waiters or David Blatt.
Statistical support for this piece comes from NBA.com's stat page.