In most eras of history, kings have been resistant to change — Louis and Charles refused to change and became victims of their own device. But our king, James of Akron, who so many of us grew up watching and idolizing, is close to meeting his demise; but, unlike his deceased predecessors, he is powerless to bring about the change he and his kingdom need. LeBron James is still one of the greatest basketball players on earth, but he needs help to defeat any of the elite teams in the Western Conference. As the defending champion Golden State Warriors routed and embarrassed the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court Monday night, it became painfully clear that this Cavaliers team is not ready to win a championship and the last years of LeBron’s prime may be going to waste.
On the surface, it is difficult to criticize this Cavaliers team too harshly. After all, Monday’s loss was just its 11th of the season and, at least on a points-per-game basis, it boasts one of the best defenses in the NBA. That may be all well and good in the traditionally weak East, but the Cavs are also just 9-5 against the West and have lost both of their games to the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs this season. Though Cleveland remains the overwhelming favorite to make it back to the NBA Finals, that cannot be LeBron’s goal at this point in his career; few, if any, superstars are content with conference championships.
During his first stint with Cleveland, LeBron simply lacked a decent supporting cast to compete with the top talent in the West. By and large that issue is gone. LeBron has Kyrie Ivring at point guard and decent depth. One player, however, meant to be the missing piece in the puzzle, has nearly become a liability: Kevin Love. Love was an all-star in Minnesota, but this season, especially against top Western competition, he has become a defensive liability. Against the Warriors, he often looked confused by various offensive sets, was slow to adjust to screens and unable to handle power forward Draymond Green both offensively and defensively.
While Love’s real plus-minus is still solid and among the top 20 in the NBA, it cannot be emphasized enough that in big games against top-notch competition Love simply does not show up. In many ways though, this reflects the second and potentially larger problem with Cleveland: leadership through coaching. When asked about his role after Monday’s loss, Love replied, “I don’t know.” It is telling that after a year and a half in Cleveland, Love does not seem to know his place in the system. Ultimately, that responsibility falls on the head coach, David Blatt.
It is no secret that Blatt is far from the league’s best coach, or, in the eyes of many media and basketball personnel, even a good coach. James constantly draws up plays during timeouts and has called off substitutions because he disagreed with the timing. Even if James has nothing but compliments for his coach publicly, he is not ignorant of the situation. Blatt looked confused and unprepared throughout Monday’s game and said as much after. This team cannot win a title if its coach repeatedly has to compete with the likes of San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich and the combination of Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and interim Head Coach Luke Walton. In some sense, Cleveland went through something like this last year after hitting a bit of a mid-season slump, and the Cavs rebounded fine. Perhaps that will happen again this season, but something has to change.
Cleveland could potentially use this loss as motivation and finish the season with a vengeance. The Spurs’ visit to Cleveland next week as well as Cleveland’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road in just under a month should help determine the Cav’s potential in the postseason. While Cleveland only plays each Western Conference team twice and thus the sample size is limited, it needs to play at a higher level to win against Western Conference teams — at home, but especially on the road.
Fair or not, LeBron’s 2-4 record in the Finals is often used against him. If the status quo persists, it looks now that record will change to 2-5. It is decidedly unfair that the King is in a near lose-lose situation. Either Cleveland makes the Finals and loses; or, it loses within its conference and avoids the scorn of the West, but it faces the humiliation of failing to win in the relatively weaker conference. The only answer is to win, but right now it seems that the King and his court are at a loss.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.