The lasting mental image many casual basketball fans will have of LeBron James is the four-time MVP getting loose in the open floor and launching for a one-handed jam as graceful as it is powerful. That mesmerizing sequence has been a trademark of his game since 2003, and remains such well over a decade later as the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar continues on a downside of his career that’s suddenly become more arduous than anyone anticipated.
The wine and gold’s shocking decision to dismiss David Blatt midway through 2015-16 was about chemistry concerns more than anything else. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are in sync from top to bottom. To beat the league’s best on the sport’s biggest stage in June, it stands to reason the Cavaliers must possess that same type of unflinching harmony – and it apparently wouldn’t be developed over the next few months with Blatt at the helm.
Tyronn Lue, on the other hand, has had the full support of Cleveland’s locker room ever since he was named associate head coach just 72 hours after his predecessor was hired in June 2014. If internal conflict was really the source of the Cavaliers’ sometimes-dispiriting performance, basically, this coaching change would yield immediate dividends in terms of spirit, energy, and zest for the game.
But that didn’t come to fruition during Lue’s debut as Cleveland’s head man, a blowout home loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night. As it turns out, the 38-year-old plans to have his team play much differently than it did under Blatt – most notably when it comes to pace.
The Cavaliers failed to do so against Chicago, and Lue didn’t shy away from explaining the potentially incendiary reason why. “I think we got tired,” he said after the game, specifically mentioning James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love among players who asked to come out earlier than normal after the Cavaliers pushed the tempo in the first quarter.
Despite his normal abundance of breakaway dunks, playing fast is new territory for James. Even his electrifying Miami Heat clubs never ranked higher than league average in pace, and Cleveland enters Monday’s game with the Minnesota Timberwolves playing slower than all but two teams in the league.
Which begs an important question: Is James comfortable playing uptempo basketball? Not exactly. As the two-time champion told Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, though, he has every intention of implementing Lue’s strategy – even if it clashes with his time-hardened identity.
“I’ve played at a slow pace and I’ve played at a fast pace before in my career and I definitely know the difference.”
“This is what coach wants,” James said. “This is what coach wants to do and this is what we’re going to do. This isn’t a LeBron thing. I’m talking out of IQ of the game, but this is what coach wants to do, so this is what we’re going to do.”
The benefits of a fast-paced attack are obvious for the Cavaliers.
James is arguably the best open-court player in basketball. He’s impossible to stop at the rim and a peerless creator for teammates when the defense inevitably focuses its attention on preventing a highlight-reel finish. Irving is similarly effective, while Love, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and more provide the spot-up three-point options in transition that have become a hallmark of modern basketball.
But the fruits of traditional fast breaks aren’t the only justification for rushing the ball up the floor.
Cleveland has a natural penchant for stopping the ball, pounding it into the floor, and playing one-on-one; only three teams in the league isolate more frequently. And despite the rare talents of James and Irving, neither player scores at an efficient enough clip in those situations to justify them being such a large portion of the Cavaliers’ offense. Would getting into the shot clock earlier combat that tendency? Seems likely.
Bottom line: Lue’s plan could help Cleveland reach its utmost potential, an especially important possibility considering the clear superiority of the Warriors and Spurs, not to mention statuses of the rapidly-improving Toronto Raptors and utterly vexing Chicago Bulls. The Cavaliers, simply, need to be better.
And if that means playing faster, James is on board – no matter how reluctantly.