The Atlanta Hawks reminded everyone on Friday that they are still the best team in the East by beating the rising Cleveland Cavaliers at home on Friday. The Cavaliers' stars struggled, with Kevin Love finishing with only 14 points and Kyrie Irving missing his five attempts from three-point range. It was LeBron James, however, who had the most uncharacteristic game of the three, finishing with 18 points and eight assists but also nine turnovers. James has equaled or surpassed that turnover total in only eight other games in his entire career, making his performance against the Hawks a rarity.
When asked about it, James didn't mince words, telling reporters "I suck."
Atlanta scored 20 points off the Cavaliers' turnovers, including some easy ones on the break after James' mistakes. The Hawks are a top-five team at creating turnovers thanks to the disruptive defense of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, which LeBron got to experience first hand. The Hawks' forwards accounted directly for four of James' turnovers, each stripping him while guarding him on the ball once and then intercepting a pass.
The Hawks' defense did a great job on James all game long, taking away the easy option, but while it deserves credit, James did have an off night. He was careless with his dribble and often ventured to the paint without a clear plan.
It's unclear whether that pass was intended to be for a cutting Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving, who was making his way to the corner.
While James dismissed his struggles, calling them the product of "one of those nights," he is averaging a career-high turnover percentage and only trails DeMarcus Cousins in turnovers per game. Three of his nine games with nine turnovers or more have happened this season, which suggests it could be a problem for him and the Cavaliers going forward. A deeper look, however, reveals that the turnover woes are simply linked to a shift in role from his Heat years.
With Kyrie Irving decidedly falling in the "scoring point guard" spectrum and the team lacking a back-up point guard that can create for others consistently, James is being tasked with playmaking duties befitting of a lead guard. His assist percentage is the highest it's been since the last season of his first stint in Cleveland and he ranks seventh in the league in assists. It seems the turnovers are just the price to pay for the shot creation he provides.
The Cavaliers will surely target a free agent in the offseason who can create for others, letting James go back to a more dual role as scorer and playmaker. Kyrie Irving could continue to improve and become more of a traditional point guard. More familiarity with the system should help James curb his turnover problems going forward, as well. For now, games like Friday's will likely continue to happen every once in a while. The Cavaliers have enough weapons that they can survive them against most teams, but they better hope James is more on point if they face the Hawks in the postseason.